STEM Diversity Grant Program Asks What it Takes to Create an Inclusive Campus Culture

A recent study on mentorship in engineering found that female undergraduates who had female mentors had more confidence and were more likely to stay in the field than those who had no mentors or male mentors. The difference was not tied to academic performance or amount of support—the critical factor, it seems, was a sense of belonging.

Similarly, Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe describes how the school transformed its formerly white, male student body into one that’s now about half female and far more diverse, by creating an environment that is welcoming to everyone, and building confidence and community among underrepresented groups. 

There’s more than one tactic to improve diversity at a school, but a big factor seems to be shifting the overall environment—creating an inviting culture that doesn’t torpedo newcomers’ interest and self-esteem right from the start. 

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute—the country’s largest private funder of science research and education—had a similar idea when it launched its Inclusive Excellence initiative in 2015. A couple years later, we have our first 24 schools, sharing $24 million, to make their institutional culture more inclusive. 

This initiative is a departure from HHMI’s other science education grantmaking programs, and from a lot of STEM diversity giving, which often involves varying forms of tutoring, scholarships and summer programs. 

Instead, HHMI invited an unusually large pool of universities, about 1500 versus 200, to investigate their enrollment data and practices to hypothesize where they are losing students from underrepresented backgrounds. That includes students with increasingly common but nontraditional backgrounds, such as those who transfer from community college or are the first in their families to attend. The program is set to make 60 total grants. The $1 million grants are expected to last five years and not up for renewal, so it remains to be seen if that’s enough to spark the kind of transformation they’re after.

There are some common themes among the winners, including adding in course-based research experiences (CREs), which have demonstrated positive impacts on undergrads. A number of the winners are implementing better mentoring in their programs, including brushing up skills among faculty. 

In fact, a lot of the grantees are investing in raising the teaching games of faculty, with several new training programs in the works. But there’s a mix of approaches from school to school to improve their cultures. San Francisco State University is partnering faculty with higher-level students of color to overhaul its undergrad biology courses. Radford University is going to engage students in real-world problem solving through “maker culture.” Tufts is creating a “Listening Project” to enable faculty to, well, to just listen, for Pete’s sake. 

Why the shotgun method? Why not just take one thing that seems to work and do it everywhere? For one, no two schools are alike. And as Harvard’s Radhika Nagpal told The Atlantic in an article about the recent mentoring study, increasing diversity in STEM is not an either-or: “We need to do everything. … We need to make up for a century of neither-nor.”