Sarah Rodriguez, Lorenzo Baber, and Mary Darrow are among School of Education faculty and staff leading research on National Science Foundation grants aimed at improving diversity in STEM. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Research to drive systemic change in STEM diversity

Iowa State University is a leader in bringing more diversity to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — not only through outreach, partnerships, scholarships, and conferences, but also with research aimed at systemic change across colleges in the Midwest and nationwide.

School of Education faculty and staff members Sarah Rodriguez, Lorenzo Baber, Brian Burt, Mary Darrow, Rosemary Perez, and Mari Kemis will for the next five years lead the research components of four National Science Foundation grants totalling $11.6 million, all aimed at increasing diversity in STEM.

“We’re really poised to make a huge impact,” said Rodriguez, an assistant professor who is involved in all four projects. “The work is very purposeful in making a collective impact for underrepresented students in STEM.”

Brian Burt

The composition of the research team is notable — not only because of their expertise in equity, access, and retention issues for underrepresented students in higher education, but because four of them are faculty members of color who have an understanding of the struggles that underrepresented students in STEM sometimes face.

“Graduate students will also be engaged in this STEM education work with us, which will help in Iowa State’s efforts to admit and fund doctoral students,” Burt said.

The research will include going to college campuses across the Midwest and nationwide to interview students, hold focus groups with faculty, collect documents, and observe the campus climate. Studies will explore both micro- and macro-level influences that affect how students thrive and persist in STEM disciplines.

“We’re creating a case study for the macro level, and on the micro level looking at the development of identity,” said Baber, an associate professor and head of the Division of Higher Education in the School of Education.

“What we’re trying to look at is the interaction between individual and context, and giving attention to both,” Baber said. “We’re thinking about ways to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM. We can’t just do it by changing structure. We can’t just do it by changing individuals. It has to be a shift that looks at that interaction.”

Making research a priority

STEM education, diversity, and social responsibility are key initiatives of Iowa State University, the College of Human Sciences, and the School of Education.

One of the projects funded by the National Science Foundation is called the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, or LSAMP. The federal program created in 1991 aims to significantly increase the quality and quantity of students historically underrepresented in STEM who successfully complete baccalaureate degrees and who continue on to graduate studies in STEM disciplines.

“A big part of the LSAMP research project and why it is so significant is because it’s looking at science identity,” Rodriguez said. “I think that each one of us brings expertise in either STEM or STEM identity. I think it’s going to be very impactful and it’s a very hot area with little research in it. So this is going to make a very large contribution.”

Of the $5 million received by the National Science Foundation for LSAMP, Iowa State is devoting nearly $1 million to research. Iowa State leaders in science and engineering not only turned to the School of Education for help, but also devoted 20 percent of their budget to research.

“What this project represents is balancing the programmatic aspects about LSAMP with research,” Baber said. “The research component is a requirement after 10 years. Iowa State is doing it early. We’re a leader in not waiting until it’s required, but saying we know it’s important.”

“In my experience at other institutions, it is rare for engineering to come to education as a partner, not as an add-on, but as a partner saying, ‘We want to work with you,’” Baber said. “At Iowa State, there’s a true interdisciplinary nature to this.”

Working with 16 colleges across the Midwest

Iowa State leads the Iowa-Illinois-Nebraska STEM Partnership for Innovation in Research and Education (IINSPIRE), an LSAMP alliance among 16 two- and four-year colleges and universities working together to broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM education in the Midwest.

The alliance has
been working together for five years and is led by
Diane Rover, a University Professor in electrical and computer engineering.

“Particularly in some of these smaller liberal arts campuses, they have very few students of color in STEM. In some cases, less than five,” said Mary Darrow, the assistant director and evaluation coordinator of IINSPIRE LSAMP and a clinician with the School of Education. “Connecting some of those students with larger communities of students like them can be really powerful because they’re on predominantly white campuses.”

Darrow said the 16-college alliance structure makes this research proposal unique because Iowa State is working with very active, engaged partners.

“They’re very interested in using this data to inform what they are doing,” she said. “They’ll be engaged in us giving them results and going back and talking to them about what we found, and using that as a way to inform their practice.”

The principal investigator of the LSAMP grant is Jonathan Wickert, Iowa State’s senior vice president and provost, who’s also a professor in mechanical engineering. Baber will manage the research team, whose work includes collecting data from six of the alliance’s 16 Midwest colleges.

“What’s exciting about the LSAMP research project is that you have different institutional types, so we’ll be able to look at that identity development within different institutional contexts,” Baber said. “That hasn’t really been examined fully before. To have the opportunity to collect data and do analysis on this interaction across time — it’s a unique approach that we’re taking.”

Additional projects aimed at increasing diversity

Additional Iowa State University projects funded by the National Science Foundation include four that recently received $9.6 million as outlined by the provost’s office, and another project that received $2 million as highlighted by the College of Engineering.

Some of the research and projects will focus more heavily on engineering. Others focus on all STEM areas. One project focuses more on campus climate, while another emphasizes network alliances, and yet another looks at identity. The projects include:

AGEP (Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate): $564,000 aimed at significantly increasing the number of underrepresented students obtaining graduate degrees in STEM fields and enhance their preparation to become faculty. This is a national study over five years. The principal investigator is Craig Ogilvie, a Morrill Professor in physics and astronomy who’s also assistant dean of the Graduate College. Rodriguez and Perez are among the project’s co-principal investigators who will over five years look at how campus climate influences underrepresented doctoral students’ interest in a faculty career.

S-STEM (NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics): $4 million for 582 scholarships over the next five years to increase the number of low-income academically talented students with demonstrated financial need obtaining degrees in STEM and entering the workforce or graduate programs in STEM. The principal investigator is Joe Zambreno, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering. Rodriguez is leading the five-year research portion of the project about identity in engineering, focusing on the scholarship recipients, while Kemis leads the project evaluation.

RED (Revolutionizing Engineering Departments): $2 million to reshape the curriculum and culture in electrical and computer engineering. Burt, Darrow, Kemis, and Rodriguez are researchers on a 15-member team led by principal investigator David Jiles, Distinguished Professor and former Palmer Endowed Department Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering. The team also includes those in engineering, political science, psychology, and industrial design.

“RED is all about transforming the curricula,” Rodriguez said. “The lynchpin of transforming the curricula is through collaboration with faculty, industry practitioners, context experts, instructional specialists, and teaching assistants. These revolutionary collaborative teams are key.”