By Graham Hammill, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs
If you have read anything about Generation Z, you may have heard the following observation: They will have jobs and careers that do not yet exist. When you consider how rapidly the world is changing, it is easy to see why.
Gen Z students are beginning their future during a time of great upheaval. Their educational and career experiences are occurring at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic, global protests against racial and social injustices, and other significant societal, technological and economic changes. Nearly every profession—especially those in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math)—will be affected. Our students, those who attend your institution and mine, will be leading change in tomorrow’s workplaces.
Yet our country’s STEM workforce is not as diverse as it should be. It is an issue that is inextricably linked with underrepresentation in STEM disciplines at our postsecondary institutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, underrepresented minority students earn just 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM disciplines. In other words, of the students who will graduate college and go on to have careers in STEM, just one-fifth of our future doctors, mathematicians, engineers, and other licensed professionals will be from underrepresented populations.
We can change this.
The University at Buffalo is committed to increasing the presence of underrepresented students in STEM fields, and we are doing so through our Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP).
Created in 1987, CSTEP is a grant-funded program sponsored by the New York State . Two- and four-year public and private institutions across the state offer CSTEP. CSTEP was created after our state’s Board of Regents commissioned an action paper that revealed the lack of diversity in the STEM workforce and the negative effects of underrepresentation in STEM fields. UB’s ability to address these issues on our campus, which is the largest and most comprehensive in the State University of New York system, had significant potential.
UB’s CSTEP offers robust programming, resources and support, with a focus on student success and career readiness. Our students have access to paid research experiences, graduate school preparation, conference funding, free tutoring and service-learning opportunities. CSTEP hosts an annual eight-week Summer Research Program, where students gain experience in the culture and rigors of faculty-mentored research, and connect with alumni through our CSTEP Connect job-shadowing program. During the pandemic, CSTEP continued to support these offerings and quickly transitioned key summer offerings to a remote format to provide a safe experience for CSTEP students.
We may be most proud of the sense of community our students gain by participating in CSTEP. We have built strong relationships with dedicated faculty and CSTEP alumni so that students feel supported and connected. This has a significant impact on our underrepresented STEM students’ success. This fall, CSTEP is strengthening the sense of community in the virtual environment to ensure students stay connected as UB operates under a hybrid model. These remote offerings include faculty-mentored research internships, research luncheons, alumni panels, study groups, workshops and more.
Now in its 33rd year, UB CSTEP is an exemplar among peer programs in New York State. At UB, we have just over 1,850 underrepresented students pursuing majors in STEM and the health sciences. CSTEP receives funding to serve 360 students annually, but we exceed this number because of student demand and need. We retain our students at a higher rate than our general student population, evidence of CSTEP’s key role in retaining and graduating talented underrepresented students from UB.
While state funding makes CSTEP possible, the type of program it is and the need it serves are universally relevant. Any institution can, and should, offer designated support to their underrepresented students in STEM, keeping the following in mind.
CSTEP succeeds because it has always put students’ needs first. We continuously refine our programming to help students navigate their identities as underrepresented students in STEM. We strive to provide an extra level of academic, financial, and social support that makes the difference between a good experience and a great one.
CSTEPS’s infrastructure depends on our staff, graduate assistants, an exceptionally supportive alumni base, and faculty partners to engage and connect with our students. Like any initiative, CSTEP’s health and vitality depend greatly on leadership, both at the program level and campus level. Institutional support is key. Campuses interested in launching a similar program would be wise to leverage these relationships.
Within the context of the pandemic and the health disparities it has illuminated, diversity in the STEM workforce has taken on an even greater significance. CSTEP and programs like it will be critical to increasing representation in professions that directly impact complex global challenges. With an integrated university and community support framework, CSTEP and programs like it can continue to champion broader participation in STEM among underrepresented students so that the workforces of the future can better represent our real, changing world.Shanna Crump-Owens, director of UB’s CSTEP, contributed to this article.