The Vital Role HBCUs Play in Building a Robust Science & Engineering Enterprise – US Black Engineer

The National Science Foundation (NSF) appointed Karen Marrongelle to serve as the chief operating officer in July 2021. Prior, she led the NSF Directorate for Education and Human Resources, which supports research that enhances learning and teaching, and broad efforts to achieve excellence in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education at all levels and in all settings.

Marrongelle is a leader in the STEM education research community, and her career has been marked by a deep commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In her time as education and human resources assistant director, she focused on understanding the causes of disparities in educational opportunities and establishing strategic visions for addressing those issues. She led the funding of several STEM education research centers focused on broadening participation and initiatives to address equity and inclusion in STEM.

This commentary by Dr. Marrongelle was first published in US Black Engineer magazine’s 2022 spring edition.

Congress created the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950. Congress did so to recognize the increasingly profound impact scientific research was having on the nation’s economy, global leadership, and well-being of all citizens of the United States.

NSF is unique among federal agencies because we fund all fundamental science and engineering research areas. We take a bottom-up approach to funding research. In that, I mean we are highly community-directed. We set some general parameters but let the research community bring us their best ideas. Then we fund those absolute best ideas.

Today, more than ever, we are witnessing the power of the NSF funds work to make deep and meaningful impacts on our lives and communities. In the past two years alone, we have dramatically underscored the importance of foundational research coupled with use-inspired innovations across the STEM fields.

The COVID-19 pandemic has capitalized on some basic research founded decades ago. The CRISPR technology that some may be familiar with has enabled PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and vaccines, allowing us to quickly introduce vaccines into the general population and access those necessary tests.

All our funding work in additive manufacturing and 3D printing took new life in printing crucial medical equipment such as face shields and ventilators. Decades of NSF investments have proven critical in providing the means for continuing the fight against COVID-19. These are but a few examples of many I could cite.

We recognize these incredible discoveries cannot and do not happen on their own. They are powered by a talented STEM community discovered across the nation that has been given opportunities and the support needed to succeed in STEM. And we know there are so many out there who do not have access to those opportunities and support. We are concerned about that.

While our research shows that the nation’s STEM enterprise continues to grow, we know there is still progress to be made in expanding participation for all individuals across the country.

Data from NSF’s National Center for Science statistics shows us that to create a research community and a STEM workforce that fully reflects the talent that exists throughout the US population; we still need to bring close to four million additional people, the “Missing Millions,” into our STEM community by the year 2030.

Every year that ticks by, getting us much closer to that time. Reaching the Missing Millions has driven the work at NSF over the past year and a half. We continue to ask ourselves very crucial questions: how do we get the additional four million people, and how do we make sure we’re leveraging all the talented ideas across our great nation?

Many know the most successful models of increasing the participation of underrepresented and under-resourced groups in STEM are our nation’s minority-serving institutions and, notably, our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. In fs represent seven of the top eight institutions that graduate the highest number of Black undergraduate students who go on to engineering doctorates.

At NSF, we’ve had a long history of recognizing and supporting the importance of HBCUs. One of our earliest efforts to broaden participation in science was the launch of the HBCU (Historically Black College and University) program in 1972.

Since then, this program has dramatically expanded, spurring innovative programs and approaches to enhance the quality of STEM education and research at HBCUs and to diversify and on STEM workforce. But there is more work to be done.

We have been challenging ourselves at NSF to think about how we can leverage the work we have been doing for the last several decades. We’ve asked ourselves what we haven’t been doing and where we can do more. To build on and enhance the efforts at speed and scale, NSF has created a framework consisting of four primary investment areas that are going to help guide our strategic actions moving forward:

Research. Like all good science, understanding how to broaden participation in STEM requires a robust foundation of knowledge. That is why we are investing in a variety of curiosity-driven and use-inspired initiatives that will increase our ability to expand access to STEM and illuminate barriers that restrict participation. NSF’s broadening participation research centers are one way to partner with HBCUs to conduct this critical research. We are learning from the lessons that HBCUs have shown us for decades.

One of the most successful centers is the Center for Advanced STEM Leadership or CASL. It is a multi-institutional collaborative founded by several HBCUs generating knowledge and research meant to equip the next generation of HBCU leadership with new theories, policies, and practices that can broaden participation in STEM more effectively.

Founded in 2016, CASL has produced numerous peer-reviewed publications. More importantly, it has expanded to include 30 HBCUs and two STEM-related professional societies across the United States. This is a critical way of disseminating our knowledge of what works, with the specific goals of (a) supporting Black students in STEM enrolled in HBCUs and (b) taking lessons learned and applying them to institutions across the nation.

Education: We invest in initiatives that will enhance opportunities, build capacity, and increase students’ participation, retention, and career sustainability at our nation’s academic institutions. A notable example of this is North Carolina A&T State University, one of the leading HBCU STEM institutions. They use an NSF Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) award for implementing and testing approaches that foster research identity development for engineering graduate students. By establishing a research engineer network and forming small research groups of faculty and students with shared interests, the project hopes to nurture and validate a sense of belonging in the education and research community for underrepresented minority students.

This is important for a couple of reasons. First, it is a lovely melding of some social sciences research regarding the importance of identity formation and identity development. Second, it is an innovative application of that work at the graduate level. For example, we might mistakenly think that someone’s identity as a scientist has already been fully formed. This challenges that perception and underscores the need for additional work in this area.

Research Infrastructure: NSF invests in our nation’s research infrastructure to ensure students, teachers, administrators, and researchers. Specifically, HBCUs have access to the tools and resources to advance their skills and build a more significant learning capacity. This is an area where we have paid particular attention to growing PIs from HBCUs whose leaders in infrastructural awards are, and we are so excited about the possibilities ahead. What is important here is that we recognize how important it is to have HBCU leadership in these types of significant research infrastructural awards.

Outreach, In-reach, and Partnerships: A critical component of our approach is fostering meaningful engagement through our nation’s communities, research associations, and the many groups and organizations represented throughout the various STEM industries. NSF recognizes that no agency, institution, or organization alone can create the momentum needed to build a more inclusive science and engineering enterprise. We also realize that fostering meaningful change requires intense collaboration and intentional, strategic actions among all partners.

The resources, funding, and initiatives at NSF that we’re employing to broaden participation serve as the seeds for strengthening and diversifying the STEM community. That is the beauty of what NSF funding can do. It can give organizations the breathing room to test out ideas and not always feel pressure to succeed. These grants can help fund kernels of ideas.

Further, they can show where the seeds are not working, where they can be improved, and how to think about taking them to scale. But to foster real growth and make lasting change, though, we need to institutionalize efforts that are shown to work and create environments that value inclusivity and diversity.

Our nation’s HBCUs play a critical role in this mission, and they are at the front of an ever-changing academic and professional landscape. We need HBCUs to tell their success stories and share their failures where they’re accessible to a broader audience and can have a wider impact. NSF’s leadership wants to hear what is working and what is not. This is the only way to truly amplify the efforts of HBCUs and create an exponential impact throughout the country.

I encourage you, reader, to look for opportunities and, even better, create opportunities for yourself, your institutions, and organizations to interact with NSF’s awards and programs in new and innovative ways.

Building a more robust and inclusive science and engineering enterprise is not easy, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, I do not doubt that we can create the change we need and build a diverse, inclusive national enterprise prepared to drive forward the frontiers of discovery and innovation for decades to come.

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