More money for science, from science

by Devin Henry

The University is “driven to discover” a way to increase ethnic minority involvement in science and technological fields.

A recent donation could help in that mission.

A University-led alliance will receive a grant dedicated to increasing the number of minorities who choose to go into science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, the National Science Foundation announced in late September.

The North Star STEM Alliance, a system of schools and other institutions, will receive $2.45 million over the next five years from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a program initiated by Congress in the late 1980s.

Art Hicks, program director for the Louis Stokes Alliance, said North Star joins 38 other selected alliances nationwide.

Hicks said North Star was chosen because of “its commitment to more than double the number of students that it’s currently producing over a five-year period.”

A series of trends, including a decline in the enrollment of foreign students in science and engineering programs, brought about the recent focus on increasing minority numbers in the STEM fields, Hicks said.

Maria Gini, professor of computer science and engineering, said computer science enrollment has been declining since 2000 and the percentage of minority students in the program has been falling as well.

“If they are left out, you are missing part of the talent,” she said. “If you bring more diversity to the table, you take care of the interests of more of everybody in the world, as opposed to the usual white male geek.”

According to the American Society for Engineering Education, whites made up 66.7 percent of enrollment in engineering bachelor’s degree programs nationally during the 2005-2006 school year, and males made up 80.7 percent.

University graduate student and Augsburg College associate professor Shana Watters spoke about computer science careers at a University-sponsored technology day camp for kids during the summer.

“They went from not even considering computer science to being able to at least imagine themselves being a part of the technology,” she said. “But to not even be interested because you have never been told, what the hell are we doing as educators?”

Watters said programs like computer science are discussed differently than other careers.

“We have people telling our children, ‘you can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer,’ ” she said, “but how often do parents say, ‘you can be a computer scientist’? “

Gini said she hopes the money from the grant will help establish a group to focus attention on coordinating outreach activities.

“Just having the grant often shows that the University cares and is interested,” she said.

Other schools in the North Star STEM Alliance include Augsburg College and the Duluth and Morris campuses of the University system.

Hicks said he hopes the schools use the grant to increase ethnic minority participation in STEM programs.

“It is a good thing that we continue to develop this nation’s workforce,” he said. “After all, one never knows where the next Nobel laureate will come from.”