To support lasting cultural progress on campus so underrepresented STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) undergraduate students can excel and graduate, the Driving Change Initiative at Rutgers–Camden has been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
Over five years, the grant will help create inclusive environments, promote student success, and address institutional obstacles that create barriers to inclusion.
Rutgers–Camden is designated by the U.S. Department of Education as a Minority Serving Institution as more than 50 percent of its students are racial minorities. While the university is committed to a way of life where all students feel welcome, valued, and respected, historically excluded STEM students have lagged behind Asian and white students in retention and graduation rates.
Seeking to address this disparity through the Driving Change Initiative, a team of faculty, staff, and students has developed long-term strategies to address the underlying conditions that have inhibited student success. The HHMI grant will help implement institution-centered programming. These programs will significantly increase the inclusivity of the university’s STEM learning environment while directly supporting success for historically excluded students.
“It has been critical for us to look at the root causes of the barriers that hold back underrepresented groups in STEM fields and address where our institutional issues of race and identity can be changed, for the better, in sustainable ways,” said Professor of Biology Kwangwon Lee.
Lee is a leader of the university’s Driving Change Initiative and served as lead applicant for the grant. He also heads the MARC U*STAR program, which provides training, support, and mentorship for undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds interested in pursuing doctoral degrees in biomedical science.
“It has been critical for us to look at the root causes of the barriers that hold back underrepresented groups in STEM fields and address where our institutional issues of race and identity can be changed, for the better, in sustainable ways."
“These HHMI funds can be utilized to develop solutions to institutional barriers that pose challenges for underrepresented STEM students,” Lee said.
Lee noted that barriers to student success in STEM include a lack of STEM-specific DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts, which reduce the sense of belonging on campus; an assumption by faculty that students without prior STEM exposure are underprepared; invisible barriers outside of the classroom that prevent students from engaging in critical STEM activities; and an overreliance on traditional teaching and coursework.
“Equitable university policies along with inclusive program and course design can create STEM success,” Lee said. “There is always room for growth, but this must start with self-reflection and an open mind.”
Lee believes a fundamental starting point for change lies in creating a campus-wide mindset of the “student-ready college.” For too long, he said, higher education has been fundamentally institutional, and this institutionalization has led to deep and systemic obstacles preventing underserved students from completing their education.
“It is time to stop simply seeking out the best students,” Lee said. “It is time to educate our students to be the best. At Rutgers–Camden, we can build a sound intellectual environment that is known for diverse perspectives and experiences.
“I know I am institutionally identified as a scientist, but I am foremost an educator.”
Creative Design: Douglas Shelton
Photography: Ron Downes, Jr.