Pitt Team Awarded $10 Million to increase Diversity in STEM Undergradate Admissions

A team led by Director of Biology Outreach, Alison Slinskey Legg, has been chosen to create a network of precollege programs with accreditation standards to boost college enrollment for underrepresented students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math.

The National Science Foundation announced today it has awarded a $10 million INCLUDES Alliance grant to the team that makes up Pitt’s Broadening Equity in STEM (BE STEM) Center and the STEM Learning Ecosystem Community of Practice (SLECoP), which is a national ecosystem of science, technology, engineering and math programs and partners in 84 regions.

“With the new NSF INCLUDES Alliance awards we continue to expand our national network of partners who are helping us build a more diverse, inclusive, innovative, and well-prepared STEM workforce,” said Karen Marrongelle, head of NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate. 

“Ultimately, this work will decrease the distance between STEM precollege programs and college admissions offices and forge a new, more equitable pathway for racially and ethnically underrepresented students to access higher education in STEM,” said Slinskey Legg, principal investigator, co-director of Pitt’s BE STEM Center.

The five-year award will make Pitt the home base for the STEM Pathways for Underrepresented Students to HigherEd (PUSH) Network through the collaboration of seven Pitt schools, centers and departments. The network is a national collaborative of precollege programs, STEM educators, college admissions professionals and other stakeholders committed to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in STEM. It will also support the creation of an accreditation model to communicate the validity of these precollege programs to college admissions officers.

Precollege programs, like our department's Gene Team program, expose students to college and STEM opportunities. The team will work to create a set of best practices that, if met, will grant STEM precollege programs accreditation through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. That accreditation will give college admissions officers a means to measure the program’s value when evaluating students for acceptance. “Developing a system to connect these initiatives to admissions is our opportunity to honor the legacy of the pioneers who created these programs,” said Alaine Allen, co-principal investigator, co-director of the BE STEM Center and director of K-12 outreach and community engagement at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.

The effort kicks off with STEM education programs that are part of SLECoP network in Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. Those programs will come together to create a vibrant, collaborative learning network designed to strengthen and leverage standards that are known to support strong student outcomes. Once standards are finalized and the first round of programs receive accreditation, the next step is to expand the effort to six additional urban areas by the end of the grant cycle.

Co-principal investigator Jennifer Iriti, a research scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, said the accreditation will be strengthened through the national network of partners working to establish a common set of best practices.

“We are pairing accreditation with a collaborative professional learning and improvement community,” she said. “This will bring providers together to innovate effective practices for recruiting and serving underrepresented students as well as build strategic pathways to STEM undergraduate programs.”

Co-principal investigator David Boone, an assistant professor of biomedical informatics at Pitt’s School of Medicine and director of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Academy, said it is important to help college admissions officers recognize the depth and quality of work done in precollege STEM programs.

“At Pitt, we are able to demonstrate that board scores such as the SATs are more predictive of a student’s race or ethnicity than their persistence in STEM, so we need to find a metric that better predicts success. We believe that successful participation in STEM precollege programming is one such metric,” he said.

The multidisciplinary BE STEM team also features representatives from the Center for Urban Education in the School of Education and the School of Computing and Information.

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