Project aims to broaden participation in the geosciences


Despite the major contributions minorities have made to the nation’s science efforts, like those depicted in the movie “Hidden Figures,” they continue to lag in STEM fields across the U.S. Rectifying the situation is now seen as critical to the competitiveness of the U.S. in an increasingly science-based economy.

A new program involving Arizona State University aims to improve minority representation in the field of geological sciences.

The National Science Foundation-funded program Sparks for Change will develop small groups of “change agents” who will learn leadership skills. They will also develop action plans to change departmental culture at their home institutions to recognize and reward faculty efforts that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

The goal is to form 10 “triads” — teams of three people — from a range of applicants in postsecondary institutions across the U.S. All of these groups will participate in a Sparks for Change workshop this fall at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, where they will focus on leadership skills that help triad members become change agents in their home geoscience department. 

The triad approach will unite a small group of change agents to achieve broader institutional change. They include an early-career minority faculty member and a senior-level faculty member from the same institution, each with an interest in changing their department’s culture concerning diversity. A diversity, equity and inclusion expert, external to that institution, will provide guidance, leadership and an accountability mechanism to the triad.

“We believe that building leadership skills within these small groups will empower the triads to change departmental culture toward rewarding diversity and leading to more recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority faculty, ultimately resulting in a more diverse geoscience field generally,” said Robert Kirsch, an ASU assistant professor of leadership and interdisciplinary studies. Kirsch is a co-principal investigator of Sparks for Change.

He said that there are many benefits of a diverse geoscience field. For instance, a diverse faculty that broadly represents a student body would attract more diverse student participation in the geosciences and cast a wider net for training the nation’s STEM workforce. Further, research suggests that diverse faculty leads to stronger collaborations and more innovative research.

The Sparks for Change project will give faculty the space to explore the unique challenges and opportunities in changing their department to value diversity, as well as formulate their own measurable outcomes to pursue in the two years after the UCAR institute. The triads will be regularly assessed in their progress toward their self-stated goals, Kirsch explained.

“This ‘small group, big change’ approach is novel in broadening participation in the sciences,” Kirsch said. “Rather than top-down diversity training, we believe that building leadership skills within these small groups will empower the triads to change departmental culture, leading to more recruitment and retention of underrepresented faculty in the geosciences.”

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