BGSU partners to build diversity in faculty ranks from graduate level up

As the national need for professionals and higher education faculty in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines has grown, the number of minority students going into those disciplines has remained disappointingly low, leaving much rich potential untapped.

“We consider it a value to change that,” said Dr. Bob Midden, director of BGSU’s Academic Investment in Math and Science (AIMS) program and the Northwest Ohio Center of Excellence in STEM Education (NWO/COSMOS).

To help prepare more graduate students to step into these important roles, the University is partnering with seven other public and private northern Ohio universities to recruit, support and mentor talented students through graduate school and ultimately into the ranks of faculty.

The new graduate student effort is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) programs. BGSU will receive $200,000 over three and a half years to support student recruitment, mentorship, professional development and research activities. Case Western University is the lead institution on the grant.

“We want to align and coordinate our efforts to employ the most effective strategies to improve those students’ academic success,” Midden said.

The benefits will extend not only to the students but to the University as well, according to Dr. Michael Ogawa, dean of the Graduate College and vice president for research and economic development.

“Diversity is not just a numbers game to us,” he said. “There exists a wealth of data that shows how socially diverse groups are more creative, more innovative, and harder-working than related groups that are socially homogeneous. Thus, we hope that by increasing the level of diversity in our graduate programs, we will make them more intellectually vibrant and exciting.”

The first steps will be small, Midden said, and will be concentrated on photochemical sciences and biology, two programs in which BGSU offers doctoral degrees. “We’ll focus first on recruiting new graduate students in those disciplines, mentor them as they progress through their degree programs and prepare them so that if they do choose to go into academia, they will be successful.”

The goal is to recruit three AGEP scholars for the fall semester and identify individual faculty mentors for each.

Midden and Ogawa are working with the alliance to recruit students from underrepresented populations across the country to all seven Ohio partner institutions, especially from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Central State and Wilberforce universities in Ohio.

Ogawa, Midden, and Drs. George Bullerjahn and Mike McKay, biological sciences, have visited two HBCUs to establish stronger relationships and explore formal partnerships, both in recruitment and research activities.

Dr. Malcolm Forbes, director of BGSU’s Center for Photochemical Sciences, is enthusiastic about the initiative. Forbes has worked extensively with the NSF and is aware of the importance of increasing minority enrollment in his field.

According to Forbes, “the AGEP Program is especially important for increasing both the quantity and the quality of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields at all levels. This program focuses on the grooming of future academics, and takes great care to nurture highly motivated students at every career step. Such close mentoring at an early stage is critical for their success.”

Forbes hopes that by losing fewer potential future faculty members on the way up, more role models will be created, who in turn will be stimulated to participate in the mentoring process as professors. “It’s a snowball effect,” Forbes said. “Once new students see a critical mass of successful scientists with whom they culturally identify, the whole process begins to feed itself.”

In fact, Midden said, the NSF views this as so crucial that any new grant application it receives must include a “broader impacts” component that can provide opportunities for diverse populations.

Once they arrive on campus, the AGEP scholars will spend an orientation weekend together meeting their faculty mentors and learning about the resources available to them through the program. Throughout the academic year they will gather monthly at their respective campuses in “mentor circles” to review their progress and share concerns and news. They will join their peers at a semi-annual AGEP research conference showcasing their work, rotating among the seven campuses. Representatives from the HBCUs will also be invited to further strengthen those connections, Midden said.

In addition, part of the grant funding will go to allowing AGEP scholars to attend research conferences nationally where they can network and build their professional portfolios.

BGSU’s AGEP program is modeled to an extent on its AIMS (Academic Investment in Math and Science) program for undergraduates, designed to increase the number of women and minorities graduating with degrees in science, technology, math and engineering and continuing on to terminal degrees.

AGEP also complements two existing NSF STEM grants the University has that address recruitment and support of undergraduate students from historically underrepresented ethnic and racial minorities to major in science, technology and math.

BGSU is participating in those undergraduate efforts through membership in a consortium within the Louis Stokes Midwest Center of Excellence, created to “communicate best practices, tools and information garnered from the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation.” Lead institutions are Chicago State University, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and the Argonne National Laboratory.

Bowling Green has access to a wealth of information and sharing of best practices through the consortium, Midden said.