13:23 PM

Doing What Works

Enrolling, Retaining, & Graduating Women & Minorities in STEM


By Laura Wagner

It will come as no surprise that women and minorities continue to be underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Consider the Nobel Prize. Last week, Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—only the eighth woman (versus 181 men) to win the coveted award in that category in the Nobel’s 121-year history.

In fact, in all the hard science Nobel categories—Chemistry, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine—only 24 women have won a Nobel. The numbers get worse when race is overlayed: only seven Hispanic men (no Hispanic women) have won a Nobel in the hard sciences, and no Black scientist, male or female, has ever won.

Working Toward Change

UHD’s Scholars Academy is working to increase the number of women and minorities in STEM by encouraging more of these populations to pursue STEM as majors. The Academy was recently awarded a Department of Education Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program (MSEIP) grant for ($249,000 for three years)—the fifth MSEIP grant UHD and the Academy have been awarded over the course of 14 years.

The grant application title explains the focus of the new grant: “UHD Boosting STEM Student Success in Computer Science/Data Science/Mathematics Through Robotics-Neural Networks-Big Data-Human Computer Interface (HCI)-Machine Learning.” According to the proposal, the project aims to increase the four-year undergraduate college experience through “interactive and intentional support systems,” primarily for first-time-in-college (FTIC) freshman undergraduates and transfer community college students majoring in STEM subjects, with an additional goal of increasing females majoring in these areas.

Dr_Parker-head“At UHD, we believe in impact learning. Mentored research, which is conducted in the lab or on the computer under the close guidance of Ph.D. faculty, is a counterpart to service learning, which is conducted out in the community under the direction of faculty,” said Dr. Mary Jo Parker (left), Executive Director of UHD’s Scholars Academy. “Past years’ MSEIP have focused on recruiting and retaining underrepresented minorities in natural sciences, among other STEM areas. This year’s grant is specifically focusing on computer science, data science, and math, as women and minorities are particularly underrepresented in those fields.”

Of women who are currently in STEM careers in the U.S., only 26% are in computer and mathematical sciences, according to research. “The professors involved in this project want to build interactive, long-term capacity at UHD, as a Hispanic- and Minority-Serving Institution, to support students, especially women, majoring in computer science, mathematics, and data science to improve retention and graduation rates,” said Parker. “What we see is that female students will enroll in computer science as a major, but they don’t stay—they switch majors before they graduate. Focusing on engaging with those students via mentored research will provide another touchpoint for them in their journey, which we believe will improve retention.”

The Importance of Role Models

Parker believes part of the reason women undergraduates do not pursue computer science, data science, or math is lack of representation in the field. “Three of the principals on the grant are female professors in the computer sciences/mathematics arena, and we have seen an increase in interest in mentored research from women since these professors joined the faculty,” Parker noted.

The principal investigators on the grant include Dr. Hong Lin (Computer Science), Dr. Ting Zhang (Computer Science), Dr. Ling Xu (Computer Science), and Dr. Katarina Jegdic (Mathematics and Statistics). The grant provides a stipend that’s particularly useful for students because of its flexibility. The funds can be used for basic needs as well as tuition, books, supplies—whatever the student needs to successfully continue in the program. “The pandemic created such dire problems for students in terms of basic needs—rent and food insecurity. These stipend funds support those needs and allow them to participate in UHD STEM -mentored research and learn about their major area of study while staying on campus,” addedParker.

Tracking Success

Students provide updates on their research outcomes to Parker as part of the reporting process. “There are a variety of ways students can participate in mentored research, and it starts with an application for admission to the program,” Parker explained. STEM professors can receive a small stipend for supplies through this grant when they mentor participants in this project, Parker noted, but the MSEIP grant funds primarily go to supporting students. “We hope to see the full circle of research completed by undergraduates as a result of the MSEIP funding.”

‘Enroll, Retain, Graduate’

Enrollment, retention, and graduation are the three pillars of the mentored research program, according to Parker. Research shows that students who work in a lab off their home campus, particularly women and minorities, are more likely to take the next step into a graduate or professional program, whether for a role in research or to progress in their non-research careers.

“Working in another lab or office seems to give them some sort of push they need to recognize their own abilities,” said Parker. “After our students get experience at UHD with mentored research, we push them out of the nest by requiring them to apply for two summer internships, whether a research placement or enterprise placement. Their grades are so high, they typically get placed, and the experience is simply transformational.”

To connect students to external internships, the Scholars Academy holds a Graduate School Internship Fair and brings in educational and research partners such as Rice and Baylor universities as well as employers who are looking for STEM majors to be interns or employees. “We let the graduate program labs and STEM employers see the high quality of our students, and our students are then able to secure placements that are key to them pursuing the next step in their education or career,” said Parker. “The research has proved correctly that research experiences give the students the capacity and confidence they need to continue their education to the next level.”

Where Are They Now?

Alumni of the program reveal an impressive roster: some have gone on to pursue doctorates in programs at The University of Texas at Austin, Rice, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, University of Houston, M.D. Anderson, and Texas A&M University, among many others. Three mentored research alums won National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships over the past three years. Alumni who chose the industry path work at Microsoft, Schlumberger, Lockheed Martin, Toshiba, Johns Hopkins, CONSOR Engineers, Waste Management, Shell, and similar employers.

“The goal of the MSEIP project is to support STEM student success, and that means supporting student persistence as undergraduates,” said Parker. “Persistence comes through connection to the University and faculty. Mentored research connects students to faculty mentors who nurture their work and reinforces students’ connection to their studies. And it works. They persist. Mentored research works because it adds value to the University degree attainment.”

To participate in STEM mentored research, contact Dr. Mary Jo Parker at parkerm@uhd.edu for an application. To participate in non-STEM research contact Dr. Poonam Gulati at gulatip@uhd.edu.

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.