Federal Agencies Strengthen Ties to Minority-Serving Institutions Through New STEM Programs

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Federal agencies have a long history of partnering and cooperating with higher education institutions to advance research in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Yet many Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) have traditionally been overlooked or dismissed when applying for federal research grants or partnerships with government entities. 

In 2018, only 3 percent of federal STEM-related funding to colleges and universities was awarded to MSIs, even though these schools constitute 14 percent of eligible institutions, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. In recent years, however, more agencies are working with MSIs to build their research capacity and expand diversity in the STEM workforce.

“[E]xpanded financial investments in MSIs are critical for cultivating the continued success of these institutions and their students, particularly in STEM disciplines,” a 2019 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report states. “To support greater investments in MSIs, current funding methods need to be re-examined and new, innovative models explored.”

In the past year alone, numerous government agencies have launched new programs and funding opportunities to create a more equitable STEM workforce. Although many of these initiatives are designed specifically to address long-standing inequities, they are also vital to ensuring that the U.S. stays on the cutting edge of research and technology, says Sonja Montas-Hunter, PhD, director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) newly formed Hispanic-Serving Institution Program Network Resource Centers and Hubs (HSI-Net).

“The landscape at our [higher education] institutions, specifically among student populations, is changing,” says Montas-Hunter. “I think what is being recognized now is that we cannot remain competitive globally, as a nation, without considering the diversity of our population.”

The NSF announced the launch of HSI-Net on June 22 as part of its overarching Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: HSI Program, which was established in 2017 to increase recruitment, retention, and graduation rates for Hispanic and Latinx students. Through the new initiative, the organization will dedicate $29 million to bolster STEM education and research at HSIs nationwide. 

The funding will support the creation of two collaborative centers that will be housed at the NSF: the Center for Community Coordination (HSI-CCC) and the Center for Evaluation, Research, and Synthesis (HSI-CERS). The HSI-CCC will bring together HSIs from across the country, including schools that are not NSF grantees, to work on STEM projects. The HSI-CERS will produce impact reports about various research projects that can be useful to different HSI STEM programs and help institutions evaluate their grant application processes to ensure competitiveness when applying for funding. Both centers will also be responsible for creating regular community engagement opportunities, such as webinars and workshops. This will ultimately help participating HSIs build their research capacity and become more competitive when applying for federal grants, says Montas-Hunter.  

“One of the gaps that we see is that the voices of those [HSI] communities are normally not present,” she says. “They’re not at the table. HSI-Net is about bringing those communities together, bringing authenticity to those partnerships, and making sure that voices are heard.”

The new initiative will also select five HSIs to be program hubs that will “serve as resources for innovative initiatives organized around key issues that are designed to effectively serve the HSI community and its stakeholders,” according to the NSF. The specific focus of each will be determined by the institutions, which Montas-Hunter says she hopes will be located across the U.S. to reflect the diversity of Latinx populations.

“The hubs are really knowledge-producing entities that we hope come from the communities and that these communities decide and identify themselves,” she says.

Another large-scale federal effort to support STEM education and research at institutions that serve large numbers of underrepresented students was announced by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in April. The Science and Technology Research Partnership will fund clean energy projects at seven MSIs. Its primary goal is to increase the DOE’s engagement with these schools and improve their capacity to become leaders in solar energy research. 

Garrett Nilsen

“Diversity in the solar [energy] industry is increasing across nearly all demographic measures, but we still have work to do before the solar industry matches the diversity of the country,” Garrett Nilsen, acting director of the DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office, wrote in an email to INSIGHT. 

The program will serve as a pipeline for undergraduate and graduate students who want to work in this sector, Nilsen says. It will provide participating MSI research teams — which will consist of faculty and graduate students — with career and performance training.

“Through programs like these, we can engage with researchers at institutions that have been historically underrepresented in our portfolio,” Nilsen wrote. “They bring new ideas and perspectives along with their robust expertise, and that’s what will spur innovation in clean energy technology.” 

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) work on a project that combines solar energy production and agriculture. Photo courtesy Joe DelNero, NREL 70626

Participating schools are a mixture of Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and HSIs. The individual projects will research specific aspects of solar energy, such as developing methods for growing crops under solar panels.

Expanded research capacity, however, is just one of the key components to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the STEM workforce. 

Another important aspect is creating interest and opportunities in these fields for underrepresented student populations. One federal initiative that addresses this is NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP), which recently awarded $680,000 to 10 HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions to increase STEM engagement for students in pre-college summer programs. 

“These proposals are designed to reach students at that critical transition point between high school and college when their future plans are really coming into focus,” Kelly Martin-Rivers, acting MUREP project manager, said in a news release. “We’re excited to be able to support the next generation of the STEM workforce.”

MUREP also recently developed a collaborative pipeline project with Drake State Community & Technical College, an HBCU in Alabama that offers two-year degrees. The project connects students with research internships at four-year colleges that focus on various aspects of space exploration systems, including the design and testing of lunar landing pads. 

These types of investments in MSIs from federal agencies will be crucial to having a robust STEM industry in the U.S., says Montas-Hunter. She and other officials across numerous departments are encouraged to see the rise in nationwide initiatives committed to advancing DEI across multiple STEM disciplines. 

“I’m super excited about it, and I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she says. “It’s about equity and social justice, making sure that institutions are doing the right thing, and providing resources for those institutions to do the right thing.”

Erik Cliburn is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.

This article was published in our September 2022 issue.