UF-led team receives $750,000 NSF grant to attract more women and minorities to engineering, computer science fields

GAINESVILLE, Fla.—White men have long dominated the engineering and scientific fields in the United States, but that may soon change: A collaborative team of researchers at four universities, including the University of Florida, have received a grant worth more than $750,000 to find ways to open up those disciplines to more women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans and other minorities.

Women and ethnic minorities occupy less than 3 percent of the jobs in engineering and science-related occupations. In American universities, women and underrepresented minorities make up less than 15 percent of the teaching faculty in schools of information technology. Researchers say these occupational trends pose a threat to the nation’s technological workforce and global edge, especially since there aren’t enough white men to fill forecasted jobs in the math, science and engineering fields.

Supported by the large, four-year National Science Foundation grant, researchers are launching an ambitious program designed to dramatically increase the number of underrepresented graduate students and faculty in electrical and computer engineering, computer science and other information technology disciplines.

The “Scholars of the Future” initiative emphasizes early exposure to laboratory research experiences and a formal mentoring program for undergraduate women and minority students from underrepresented populations such as African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians and Alaskan Natives. More exposure and opportunities for personal advising, scholarships and professional development also are hallmarks of the program.

“Many studies attribute the consistent low numbers of women and ethnic minorities in scientific careers to poor retention programs, inadequate pre-college preparation and unwelcoming university environments,” said Lamont A. Flowers, co-principal investigator of the NSF study and an assistant professor in the UF College of Education’s department of educational leadership, policy and foundations. “Early exposure to research and stronger mentoring programs for undergraduate students can have a significant impact on their future career choices and their decision to pursue graduate studies. Based on the job forecasts, there is a necessity to produce more mathematicians, scientists and engineers from underrepresented populations.”

Flowers’ co-principal investigators on the NSF-funded research team are Juan E. Gilbert of Auburn University, James L. Moore of Ohio State University and Bevlee A. Watford of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The Scholars of the Future initiative is based solely on models proven effective by empirical research and on other successful recruitment and retention programs for underrepresented college students. Starting this fall semester, Auburn is serving as the primary site of the initiative for all four years of the funding period. In years three and four, the program will be replicated at Virginia Polytechnic.

The experimental diversity program places a heightened emphasis on student retention. Extensive follow-up evaluation will occur one year after the program’s completion, when Flowers and Moore will analyze the effectiveness and impact of the various recruitment and retention activities.

“Our findings should yield in-depth recommendations to parents, teachers, school counselors and other school administrators for improving the overall interests and success of underrepresented students majoring in math, science and engineering disciplines,” Flowers said.