ASU hosts summit to eliminate systemic barriers to STEMM in the Southwest

Event brought together hundreds of participants who work in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical fields

Five people sit in chairs in a line underneath an ASU presentation screen.

Left to right: Kenro Kusumi, dean and professor of natural sciences at ASU’s The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Daniel Corr, president of Arizona Western College; Kathleen Jolivette, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Vertical Lift; Raghu Santanam, senior associate dean and professor of executive education at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business; and Ines Halloran, vice president of State Farm’s Enterprise Technology, speak during the “Creating the Workforce of the Future” panel as part of the STEMM Opportunity Alliance conference at the Rob and Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health in Tempe on Nov. 3. Photo by Samantha Chow/Arizona State University

Hundreds of individuals who advance education, research and workforce development in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical, or STEMMFederal efforts to advance equity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields have recently expanded their scope to include medicine, resulting in the evolution of the STEM acronym into STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine). Data and research measuring equity gaps in STEM fields are still evolving to include information related to medical fields., fields gathered Nov. 3 at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus to help expand access to these fields.

ASU held the event in partnership with STEMM Opportunity Alliance, a national effort that is being led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to achieve equity in STEMM fields by 2050. The alliance was launched in December 2022 at the White House.

“The alliance is very, very important because it challenges us with the continuing question about how we advance our country, how do we include the many people who want to study science, technology, engineering and math, and who want to solve problems by designing and building, and understanding things,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said. “Many more people want to understand it. So we have been working for two decades at this institution to change every assumption about how to help people learn.”

The summit at ASU — the final event in a series of 11 summits hosted nationwide — invited attendees from government, industry, civic, academic, nonprofit, community and philanthropic sectors to seed connections and collaborations, and provide insights regarding the development and implementation of the National Strategy for STEMM Equity and Excellence to be released in spring 2024.

The need to strengthen American innovation

The gaps in diverse talent in STEMM fields continue to close off opportunities for economic resilience for entire communities while also weakening America’s stronghold on innovation and scientific advancement. 

Women, people with disabilities, and people from some racial and ethnic minority groups continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce. In 2021, women made up half of the total population ages 18 to 74 years old but only a third of those were employed in a STEM occupation. 

Similar disparities exist in science and technology degree attainment. Underrepresented minorities collectively accounted for over a third of the college-age population in 2021; however, they accounted for only a quarter of individuals pursuing science and engineering bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 2020. Less than half of all advanced science and engineering degrees were earned by women. 

“The STEMM Opportunity Alliance has made important progress in its first year by engaging 150 cross-sector partners and more than a thousand stakeholders to construct a national strategy designed to achieve STEMM equity and inclusive excellence by 2050,” said Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Doing so will unlock our nation’s full potential and help enable all of us to overcome whatever challenges lie ahead.”

The National Strategy for STEMM Equity and Excellence focuses on five key pillars:

1. Exposure: Sparking curiosity in every child. Facilitating early exposure during K–12 years can spark and harness curiosity in children and bring more diverse talent into STEMM.

2. Inspiration: Developing skilled and diverse educators. Developing more skilled math and science educators, who reflect the demographics and identities of the students they teach, can inspire students to pursue STEMM fields. 

3. Discovery: Creating opportunity for all in higher education. Closing the opportunity gap in higher education is critical to helping students gain new skills, knowledge and experience that can lead to the jobs and industries of the future. 

4. Innovation: Leveraging diverse minds in research and development. Bringing diverse minds into research is imperative to drive innovation and solve the challenges of the future. 

5. Opportunity: Ensuring all workers thrive. Providing equitable opportunities and an inclusive work environment for workers to help them participate in and contribute to STEMM innovation throughout their careers.

Inclusion by design

Crow stressed the power of creating inclusive systems.

“We have to have a culture change,” Crow said. “We need to find ways to translate the knowledge of faculty members in ways that almost everyone can understand. We have to find a way where you can have great researchers who are also deeply dedicated to undergraduate education — not at every university, but certainly at the large public research universities.”

ASU’s systemic approach to inclusion has included expanding learning modalities and pathways. It currently offers more than 300 degree programs online to students worldwide. Nearly half of those are in STEMM fields. The university has also expanded its presence in locations across the United States through ASU Local, a hybrid undergraduate experience, and Universal Learning Pathways, a program that allows interested learners to test college waters and earn credit. 

This approach has fueled ASU’s STEMM enrollment. In fall 2022, the number of STEM enrollments more than doubled over the previous decade. In this period, women and minority enrollment increased more than threefold, and the number of STEM degrees awarded increased twofold. Minorities earned more than one-third of those degrees.

ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering is one of the biggest engineering schools in the country, with more than 23,000 undergraduate engineering, computing and technology students enrolled across 25 undergraduate programs. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Education named ASU a Hispanic-Serving Institution, recognizing its enterprisewide commitment to increasing the diversity of its student body and serving its community’s needs.

Inclusive, principled innovation

Keynote speaker Russlynn Ali is the managing director of the Education Fund at Emerson Collective and CEO and co-founder of XQ Institute, one of the leading organizations in the country dedicated to rethinking the high school experience. She exhorts educational organizations and professionals to bring new ideas to life. 

“When our high schools open the doors of the computer class or the science lab to students of all backgrounds, it’s literally opening the door to a more equitable, thriving society,” she said. “It’s time to invest in STEMM education like never before, especially during high school, which research shows can make or break a student’s decision to pursue these fields. We must ensure that the STEMM education in high school is inclusive, relevant, engaging, and rigorous to help every learner achieve their dreams — and ours.”

Despite the focus on advancing K–12 STEM education in the past decade, American students’ performance in science and mathematics consistently ranks below that of their peers in many other nations. Improving K–12 performance requires students and teachers to have access to research-proven STEM pedagogy and practices that help nurture curiosity and exploration in young minds. 

ASU established principled innovation as its ninth design aspiration to ensure equitable learning opportunities for all learners. Various STEMM programs, such as Comunidad de Ciencia, PASSCARD and CompuGirls, continue to engage young women and men from diverse backgrounds, including young African American and Latino students, and middle and high school students from refugee backgrounds.

The ASU-run Arizona STEM Acceleration Project (ASAP) is helping educators connect with professional development and funding resources to continue to improve STEM education for Arizona’s youth. The Research for Inclusive STEM Education (RISE) Center and the Center for Broadening Participation in STEM aim to increase the participation of women and individuals from underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

ASU has also created personalized learning support and intervention tools that help students develop complex problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. These include Digit, which helps provide customized guidance to middle and high school students on how they approach mathematical problem-solving, and Dreamscape Learn, an immersive, virtual reality-powered environment that merges advanced pedagogy with cinematic storytelling to engage students from all backgrounds.

Leveraging diverse minds for diverse ideas and discoveries

Attendees split into breakout sessions to discuss the implementation of the National Strategy for STEMM Equity and Excellence, specifically in the Southwestern United States. The sessions were designed to connect attendees from diverse personal and professional backgrounds to each other and engage them in a deeper conversation regarding the specific needs and implementation steps for the region.

“Leveraging diverse mindsets is crucial to driving innovation that serves everyone,” said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise. “ASU faculty and students from across the STEMM fields, and from a variety of backgrounds, are leading research endeavors that promote equitable outcomes for all.”

Partnerships hold the key to lasting change

The summit featured a panel discussion called “Creating the Workforce of the Future'' that centered on the power of partnerships to advance equity in STEMM education and workforce development.

Participants included moderator Kenro Kusumi, ASU’s dean of natural sciences, as well as panelists Daniel Corr, president of Arizona Western College; Ines Halloran, vice president of Enterprise Technology at State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Companies; Kathleen Jolivette, vice president and managing director of Vertical Lift at Boeing Defense, Space and Security; and Raghu Santanam, McCord Chair of Business, W. P. Carey School of Business, and executive director, AZNext Workforce Training Accelerator.

The panelists, who come from a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds, shared insights on finding success in personal and professional endeavors to create and pursue equitable opportunities for themselves and others.

“Our student population is 76% Hispanic and 72% first-generation, with strong ties to their family and community. We knew that not all of our students wanted to leave to pursue a STEMM degree elsewhere,” Corr said. “Our partnerships with ASU Local and other Arizona state universities are meant to help us expand access to STEMM opportunities and baccalaureate degree attainment within Yuma and La Paz counties.”

ASU is no stranger to partnerships that disrupt the status quo and expand access to educational opportunities. The university has partnered with Starbucks and Uber to help the companies’ employees pursue an undergraduate degree with 100% tuition coverage. Another partnership, funded with $30 million from State Farm, established the Pathways for the Future program for high school, community college and ASU students as well as State Farm employees seeking to advance their career in STEMM.

“Through the Pathways for the Future program, we’ve already impacted more than 300 students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to help them adapt, learn and transition to rapidly evolving, tech-powered work environments,” Halloran said. “Universal learning is key to creating more opportunities.”

The 2022 passage of the CHIPS and Science Act has resulted in the rising investment in and production of American-made semiconductors to strengthen the nation’s economic and national security. The bill also included vast investments into workforce development, especially in the STEMM fields.

“Our goal is to reach all learners and workers who would like to grow in their careers, not just the ones who are seeking a degree,” said Santanam, who leads the AZNext public-private partnership between ASU, the state of Arizona, Infosys, Pipeline AZ and several external partners. He said it’s important to create education models that focus on job training, upskilling, and reskilling to help workers train for high-demand, high-paying jobs.

AZNext is part of a larger push from the state of Arizona to increase investments in semiconductor and microelectronics production and workforce development. The university has launched six Science and Technology Centers as part of the push that will catalyze discovery and innovation, engage in workforce development, bring new enterprises to the state, and stimulate entrepreneurship through knowledge translation, technology transfer, and startup support.

Jolivette, who started as an intern at Boeing with a nontraditional background, said that early exposure to many opportunities through the workplace and connecting with mentors and peer networks that reflected her military and Native American background helped her feel a sense of belonging. Now she’s leading efforts to recruit and retain diverse talent at the company.

“Post pandemic, we’re being intentional and making additional efforts to recruit and retain great talent, and help them feel a sense of belonging as part of our organization.”

Written by Iti Agnihotri, ASU Foundation.

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