In the US, careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are becoming increasingly diverse and numerous. Yet for students from under-represented minority backgrounds, shortcomings in STEM education at university mean that these opportunities are all too often out of reach. Through her work, Dr Hengchun Ye, from California State University, Los Angeles, has spearheaded the launch of DIRECT-STEM: a centre that has now provided hundreds of minority students with the support they need to complete their degrees, and to embark on promising STEM-related careers.
In recent years, the US has seen a steady growth in employment opportunities in the wider field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As these job prospects improve, many prospective university students are expressing an interest in pursuing STEM-related careers; yet despite this positive trend, there is still a limited uptake of STEM degree courses among students, and a high dropout rate prior to graduation. This meant that, in the 2015–16 academic year, just 18% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded were in STEM subjects.
In parallel with this problem, there remains a persistent and disproportionate under-representation of people of colour in existing STEM-related jobs. In the coming decades, these groups are projected to form an ever-larger proportion of the US population – potentially reaching as high as 56% by 2060. To prepare for these societal changes, researchers have identified a pressing need to raise the interest, college enrolment, student retention, and graduation rates of STEM students from minority backgrounds. Through her work, Dr Hengchun Ye and colleagues at California State University, Los Angeles, have taken important early steps to address these issues.
In previous studies, sociologists have identified several reasons for the low graduation rates of STEM students in the US: including weak academic support, a lack of encouragement from friends and family, limited access to informed advice on education or careers, and a lack of the extensive amounts of time and money required to complete a degree. These problems are particularly pronounced among people in minority groups, where prospective students are far more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In 2015, Dr Ye’s team aimed to combat these problems through the launch of the Data Intensive Research and Education Centre for STEM (DIRECT-STEM) at California State, Los Angeles. Serving around 2,700 students, Cal State LA is a public institution where minorities are strongly represented – with a student composition 70% Hispanic, 12% Asian, 5% White, and 4% Black – making it an ideal starting point for achieving greater diversity in the STEM workforce.
As Dr Ye explains, ‘the centre’s overarching goal is to recruit historically under-represented students, giving them direct NASA research experience in scientific computing and data analysis, and inspire them to become future leaders in STEM-related professions’. Since its launch, DIRECT-STEM has already provided unprecedented opportunities for students of colour from first generation, low-income households to engage with cutting-edge STEM research, and access the support they need to complete their degrees and continue on to either a PhD programme or highly competitive professional STEM jobs including NASA centres in the United States.
DIRECT-STEM and NASA
Dr Ye’s team were not alone in their efforts: in the five years between 2015 and 2020, DIRECT-STEM secured $5 million in funding from NASA’s MUREP Institutional Research Opportunity project (MIRO). In addition to this support, the researchers also directly collaborated with some of NASA’s most respected research institutions – each of which has contributed to world-leading research, both past and present.
‘The centre has now built up multiple external partners, including three NASA centres: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Ames Research Center (ARC), and the Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC),’ Dr Ye describes. At JPL, studies of the movement of water throughout Earth’s atmosphere – as well as climate change, computational physics, and cloud computing – are among the most important current lines of research, and are directly contributing to NASA’s mission goals. In addition, there are currently ongoing studies into advanced thermal protection for spacecraft at ARC, and the operation of some of the world’s most advanced aircraft at AFRC.
In addition, DIRECT-STEM is partnered with the Michigan Space Consortium at the University of Michigan, which aims to enhance education, research, and public outreach efforts among STEM-related fields. Each year, the centre selects two groups of Cal State LA students, both at different stages in STEM education, and with their own important goals. By strengthening students’ mathematics skills, and developing their aptitude in computer modelling, the programme ultimately aims to recruit and train highly competitive and ethnically diverse students, inspiring them to become future leaders in STEM-related roles.
Kickstarting STEM careers
The first of the groups at DIRECT-STEM is called ‘NASA Research Students.’ Each year, the centre recruits 30 students pursuing either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a STEM major, focusing on data sciences in fields including engineering, geology, and physics. After demonstrating a commitment to completing the programme’s activities, these students take on a two-year, hands-on research project as either an undergraduate or master’s thesis. Following on from this research project, they would then take on at least one summer internship at one of the three NASA centres DIRECT-STEM is partnered with, where students directly work with the supervision of cutting-edge engineers and scientists to contribute to world-leading research.
During this time, the students receive guidance from a DIRECT-STEM faculty mentor, as well as participate in multi-disciplinary seminars and workshops. They also receive stipends of up to $8,000 in their first year, and $12,000 in their second year in addition to the fully-paid summer internship at NASA centre. As highly talented students nearing graduation, each member of this group can be expected to go on to secure a highly competitive STEM-related job after completing the program or continue their STEM education as a PhD candidate at an R1 university
As Dr Ye describes, ‘the goal for these students is to either go on to do a PhD program, or to begin a professional STEM career at a NASA centre, private company, or other public entity upon their graduation’. Across its five-year run, DIRECT-STEM has now served a total of 102 NASA Research Students. Overall, the program has clearly demonstrated that, with an appropriate degree of support, students from underrepresented minority backgrounds can attain futures just as promising as those with more advantages.
Encouraging degree completion
The second group selected by DIRECT-STEM is called ‘Pre-trainee Students.’ Each year, the group takes in up to 95 new members who are in the earlier stages of their degrees and may have yet to demonstrate the persistence and commitment required to graduate in a STEM-related field. These students will participate in bi-weekly computation and coding workshops throughout the academic year, and over the summer they have the opportunity to take part in an intensive research project as part of a larger team.
With this group, the goal of Dr Ye and her colleagues is to create a supporting learning community which has a broader impact on the motivation of STEM students in minority groups to persist with their degrees – helping them to attain certain critical quantitative and computation skills and develop their STEM identity. During the last three years, the centre collaborated with the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (EXSEDE) team which provides workshop series on Linux/Unix and advanced Python. This greatly enhanced students’ computational skills. ‘Some of these students become NASA Research Students, some of them participate in other research opportunities in their discipline faculty’s labs, or join REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates, an NSF-funded project) at universities across the United States after they finish our one-year workshop. Many of them go on to graduate or professional schools, or into highly competitive STEM jobs after they graduate’, says Dr Ye.
DIRECT-STEM has now served as many as 319 Pre-trainee Students since 2015 – clearly demonstrating that, with the right support, minority STEM students as a whole can become far more motivated to finish their degrees, while also increasing their level of interest in grad school and a potential career in a STEM-related field. Through the success of the programme, Dr Ye’s team have now provided a roadmap for combating several problems relating to degree completion that have remained so prevalent among under-represented minority students so far.
Success for students of colour
Having reached the end of their initial funding by NASA MIRO, Dr Ye and her colleagues at DIRECT-STEM have already secured $3 million in further funding from external sources – allowing them to provide opportunities for even more students in years to come. Already, the programme has made numerous meaningful contributions to STEM education and research. In a particularly promising development, the centre has supported three EdD candidates in science education, and some already became administrators at K-12 schools (which teach 5–18-year-olds).
In addition, ‘the centre’s faculty and students have published over 100 peer-reviewed publications, trained 193 science teachers, and indirectly impacted 16,945 middle-to-high school students, many of whom are from under-served communities’, Dr Ye concludes. By expanding their efforts even further, the team ultimately hopes to show that that the goal of a diverse STEM workforce, which far more closely represents a true cross-section of US society, is well within reach.
- Slovacek, S, Miu, V, Soto, K, and Ye, H. (2019). Supporting STEM in Higher Education. International Journal of Education and Practice, 7(4), 438–449
- Ye, H, (2021). How Food Can be a Cultural Bridge to Enhance Student’s STEM Identity and Learning Outcomes. Available at: www.aaas-iuse.org/how-food-can-be-a-cultural-bridge-to-enhance-students-stem-identity-and-learning-outcomes/
Raising the interest, college enrolment, STEM identity, student retention, and graduation rates of STEM students from minority backgrounds, building an inclusive community.
NASA Centers: JPL, ARC, AFRC; University of California, Irvine; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; University of Michigan, Dearborn.
Dr Ye is a professor in climatology and the dean of Graduate Studies and Research at California State University, Stanislaus. She was the founding director for the NASA DIRECT-STEM and the associate dean at Cal State LA. With more than 26 years’ experience of research, teaching and mentoring, Dr Ye is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, and dedicated to supporting students of colour and under-represented groups.
Office of Graduate Studies & Research, Cal State University, Stanislaus, CA95382