Photo courtesy of UC Davis College of Engineering / Creative Commons

Meyerhoff Scholars Program Serves as a Model for Increasing Diversity in STEM Fields

In the midst of a predicted physician shortage and the threat of ecosystem collapse, many of the resources and services people depend on are at risk. In order to develop solutions to these complex problems, America needs to promote a diverse and robust scientific workforce comprised of individuals with a wide variety of talents and perspectives.

As technological breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence and renewable energy sources are integrated into our daily lives, our ability to utilize these new developments in an efficient and ethical manner is highly dependent on those with advanced training in scientific disciplines.   

However, the U.S. is far from drawing upon all of the talents of all the American people. While in a 2017 Pew Research Center study the majority of American workers viewed racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace as important, the lack of representation of minority groups in the workforce and higher education persists.

According to another study, among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, Blacks represent 7% and Hispanics (of any race) represent 6% of the STEM workforce. This lack of minority representation points to a larger problem in higher education dating back hundreds of years in which college education was reserved exclusively for affluent white males. For decades, leaders in higher education have struggled to create and implement solutions to alleviate these inequalities. 

While many universities have chosen to accept the status quo, the University of Maryland at Baltimore County (UMBC) took the leap by implementing a new approach. During a period of racial unrest in the late 1980s, University officials sought to understand the sources of overall student frustration and disenchantment with the University. While poor academic performance was an issue affecting a large portion of the student body, black male students demonstrated poor performance at particularly disproportionate levels.

However, rather than attributing these trends in poor performance to individual student weaknesses, University officials took this as an opportunity to further examine the shortcomings of the institution as a whole. They sought to develop a program dedicated to fostering the success of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. 

In 1988, the University launched the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, named after the philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff. This program, funded by groups such as the Meyerhoff family and the National Institutes of Health, originally focused on the Black student population. A few years later, the university decided to open up the program to anyone who demonstrates a strong commitment to supporting diversity and inclusion in STEM fields.

To participate in the program, students must be interested in pursuing a career in research. The program not only provides students with financial support, but also gives them personal advising, engages family members who reinforce program goals, and involves them in community service. 

There is a strong focus on developing a sense of community, in which the students live together and are encouraged to work in groups. The central components include a “bridge program” which serves to introduce the students to college life as well as extensive research internships, allowing students to engage in scientific discovery and supporting their professional development. 

As a result of the program, UMBC is first among predominantly white institutions and second overall in the number of Black students it educates who go on to earn natural science and engineering doctorates. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC, stated, “The Meyerhoff Program was not a marginal effort, but one that shaped UMBC’s culture, defined our institution, and provided insights into how to support academic success for all students.”

While the program has provided hundreds of talented students the ability to further explore their scientific interests, it has also succeeded in sparking institutional changes and larger discussions about the representation of minority groups in STEM fields.

However even after the demonstrated success of the Meyerhoff program, many leaders in higher education asserted that the program could not be replicated at other universities. 

Despite this criticism, many other universities such as Penn State and UNC Chapel Hill have followed suit in replicating the program. Successful results of these efforts have recently been published in Science, and other universities, like UC Berkeley and the University of California at San Diego, are in the process of implementing similar initiatives.

Like many other institutions of higher education, Boston College has faced criticism for its lack of minority representation both its student body and faculty. This has created a push toward increasing faculty diversity, such as through the establishment of the African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS) major earlier this fall. The program was designed as an opportunity for students to learn about the diaspora of African-descended peoples in an interdisciplinary manner, as well as to facilitate conversations about race and culture.

With the construction of the new Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society currently underway, many wonder whether the administration will use this as an opportunity to hire science faculty with diverse backgrounds and perspectives by its anticipated completion in the fall of 2021.

In order to address multidimensional problems of minority representation both at BC and in higher education as a whole, students must not be afraid to engage in difficult conversations about weaknesses and areas for improvement. Successful solutions don’t come from hoping for change, but by pressuring university leaders to make these types of changes an institutional priority.

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