In Washington, D.C., professor Lois Trautvetter addressed the issue of how to improve graduate training for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Trautvetter, who directs the SESP Higher Education Administration and Policy Program, researches how to expand graduate education in STEM, especially for women and underrepresented groups.
The “Future STEM Leaders” conference from May 2 to 4 brought together national experts from academia, government and industry to discuss the future of graduate STEM training. Adaptable leaders are needed to take on the 21st century’s biggest scientific challenges, from poverty to epidemics.
As a featured panelist speaking on “State of the Science: Innovators and Innovations in STEM Graduate Training,” Trautvetter emphasized the need to be innovative in recruitment and retention in order to increase participation by females and underrepresented minorities. Her comments were grounded in Northwestern’s current National Science Foundation research project on the topic.
“We need to research how the organizational context — such as institutional and administrative policies, curriculum, instruction, mentoring and faculty culture — is integral to the recruitment, retention and learning of graduate students. We need to develop models and knowledge that will promote transformative improvements in graduate education,” Trautvetter says.
According to Trautvetter, effective recruitment methods include institutional commitment and awareness, strategic “high-touch” admissions efforts, appealing career options in both academia and industry, and outreach programs in higher education to foster a sense of community and belonging. “It is important that graduate students understand that ‘this is a career you could have,’” she notes.
Northwestern’s current project on “Training in Data-Driven Discovery — From the Earth and the Universe to the Successful Careers of the Future” seeks to prepare more scientists in astronomy, physics and earth sciences, as well as graduate students in other fields interested in data science. Vicky Kalogera of CIERA is the principal investigator, and Trautvetter is co-investigator for this project supported through the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program.
To increase student STEM retention, Northwestern’s Integrated Data-Driven Discovery in Earth and Astrophysical Sciences (IDEAS) program offers collaborative and interdisciplinary instruction, hands-on experiences including internships, and research using state-of-the-art equipment. Such tools include Advanced LIGO for measuring gravitational waves, Earthscope for measuring seismic activity, and the LSST telescope under construction in Chile to collect data from the sky each night.
Topics slated for further research related to student retention are mentoring and providing accessible role models, opportunities to apply knowledge to real-world situations, monitoring graduate students’ feedback and needs, and professional development and support for faculty and staff. “Our project will include a research communications program, summer internships and summer schools that focus on in-demand technical skills such as programming and visualization,” says Trautvetter.
Another important feature of Northwestern’s NRT project is a capstone interdisciplinary team activity to develop and deploy high impact ‘citizen science’ research projects. This activity “could prove to be attractive in recruiting as well as helping students connect to a broader community and wider purpose,” says Trautvetter.
“We think this combination of course work and professional development will be attractive to recruiting and retaining graduate students for positions in academic and industrial positions,” says Trautvetter.
The 18 teams developing new interdisciplinary models for STEM graduate education for the NSF Research Traineeship program met at the University of Maryland on Mary 2 and 3 to kick off the Future STEM Leaders conference on May 4. According to NSF, these teams represent some of the most creative approaches to STEM training across the nation.