Jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are some of the fastest-growing in the workforce. But minorities such as Blacks and Hispanics are often underrepresented in these jobs at a national level.
As a minority-serving institution (MSI), FIU began a series of concerted efforts to redesign and redefine its approach to STEM education several years ago. The goal was to make sure that its students would truly learn the material and access these fields as professionals.
The result? FIU – the largest producer of STEM degrees for Hispanics in the United States – has established itself as a leading MSI working to advance diversity in STEM. In fact, the university was recently recognized during a virtual town hall through the prestigious National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) for its work in this area. During the event, FIU faculty, administrators and students led conversations about STEM education with colleagues across the country.
“We are a university that is very proud of the fact that a lot of our students come from right here from the 305,” said President Mark B. Rosenberg, who has been at the forefront of the conversation about STEM and has served on national academies and committees focused on STEM education for years.
“These days with COVID-19, there is no doubt that STEM literacy is going to be necessary for responsible 21st Century citizens engaging in solving local and national problems,” Rosenberg said. “[We’d like for you] to use the hope that may be engendered through these conversations to empower you to do more and be more impactful. If we can have that small contribution with you then we will be very, very satisfied.”
The event was part of a series of town halls NASEM is conducting in collaboration with MSIs across the country to promote how MSIs can strengthen the STEM workforce and to learn how these institutions are working to advance STEM workforce preparation, education and research capacity.
FIU’s virtual event featured speakers including FIU STEM Transformation Institute director Laird Kramer; Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Elizabeth Bejar; Provost and Executive Vice President Kenneth G. Furton; and a number of professors and Panthers striving to provide the best education for students.
Faculty members of academies
The event furthered FIU's engagement with NASEM. FIU faculty are already among the members of two of the three academies that make up NASEM.
Joseph P. Colaco, a senior scholar at the College of Engineering and Computing (CEC); Lawrence G. Griffis, a professor of practice of Civil & Environmental Engineering; and Mehdi Hatamian, distinguished university professor at the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering are all members of the National Academy of Engineering.
Members of the National Academy of Medicine are: Hortensia de los Angeles Amaro, distinguished university professor in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work; Dorothy Brooten, tenured professor at the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences; Joe Leigh Simpson, professor at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine; and William A. Vega, distinguished professor of community health at the Office of Research and Economic Development.
This kind of event – and collaboration with NASEM – furthers the mission of another regional STEM-related coalition, which Rosenberg started in 2012 and continues to chair: Life Sciences South Florida (LSSF). LSSF is one of the university’s key community partnerships managed out of FIU’s Office of Engagement.
The coalition’s goal is to increase exchange among top educational, economic development and research institutions; to make connections among the 12 colleges and universities in the tri-county area; and to encourage students to contribute to the growth of the life sciences industry.
Florida is one of the regions where the life sciences sector – made up of tech, biomedical and other similar companies – is growing the fastest.
“We need to make sure we are being intentional, that our students see themselves in STEM and that we foster STEM professionals,” said Jenesis Ramirez, program manager at the Office of Engagement. Ramirez forged the connection between NASEM and FIU that led to the academies’ invitation for the university to share research on STEM education.
Caryn Lavernia, assistant vice president of the Office of Engagement, said sharing these insights with the national community is a responsibility.
“What we’ve tried to show is what FIU is doing, because it’s a moral imperative,” she explained. “For the town hall, all the speakers showcased data about their research and teaching strategies. These are all programs that work. Our faculty are making an impact.”
Transforming STEM education
So, what makes FIU’s efforts in STEM education stand out? Through the STEM Transformation Institute, housed in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, Kramer and his team have ushered in a new era of teaching in these disciplines at FIU.
“We use research as a driving force for what we’re doing in the classroom,” he said. “Education is how we all got to where we are. It’s the empowering system that makes all careers possible. This is a concrete way to make a difference in the lives of those we care deeply about.”
One teaching strategy revolves around reformatting class so students work on hands-on, practical exercises during class time when they can ask questions.
Another essential technique: Incorporating peer Learning Assistants (LAs) in class. These LAs have taken the same class themselves and provide support for students currently taking the course. This is especially important for minorities who can see themselves in these peers, and can find role models in them.
“Talking to a peer mentor is…about talking to someone that has gone through what you went through,” said Ingrid Lopez, who has been a peer mentor for several semesters. “The LA relationship bridges the gap between professor-student relationships.”
She added that she feels grateful to be part of a team helping students succeed.
“Honestly, attending FIU is the best decision I could’ve made,” she said. “The fact that they are always putting forth initiatives and focusing on topics like minorities in STEM…I’m lucky.”
The FIU STEM Transformation Institute also recently received a 2020 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine for its work assisting students from underrepresented groups enter STEM fields.