UW-Madison Creates Online Tool to Assist Underrepresented Students, Faculty in STEM

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For underrepresented students, it can be difficult to find mentors and role models in their academic fields with whom they can connect. This can be especially true at larger universities, where the prospect of identifying a mentor among hundreds, if not thousands, of faculty and staff can be overwhelming. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) — home to more than 43,000 students and approximately 2,500 faculty members — the task of finding a mentor in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines has become streamlined thanks to an innovative new resource designed specifically for underrepresented students.

The STEM Diversity Network is a university-sponsored website that provides a comprehensive list of STEM “Diversity Advocates” — a title given to faculty members who exhibit a dedication and willingness to support minorities and women in STEM.

Ahna Skop, PhD, an associate professor of genetics at UW-Madison, first developed the idea for the STEM Diversity Network two years ago while serving as chair of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences’ (CALS) Equity and Diversity Committee. The idea grew out of a recognition that, as a large university with many different STEM divisions, it was difficult for faculty and students to develop interdepartmental connections.

“One of the problems that comes up on a big campus like this is that diversity advocates are everywhere, but students don’t know who’s out there and who might be a good contact to have,” explains Skop. “One of the main goals of having a website like this is to house all of these people who are working in STEM diversity efforts or who can be good mentors in this area.”

With help from a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, UW-Madison officially launched the STEM Diversity Network in April of this year. The project soon attracted attention across campus and in the community; it was recognized by local and state media and was eventually awarded additional funding from the Office of the Chancellor. Now, she says, students and faculty alike are discovering and recognizing the site for the valuable resource that it is. It not only helps people find instructors and colleagues with similar passions, but also provides advice, articles, and additional resources devoted to supporting underrepresented groups in STEM.

The STEM Diversity Network has already helped connect many students with faculty mentors, and Skop says she plans to continue growing the site. In addition to pulling relevant resources off the web, she intends to recruit members of the university community to create user-generated content, including articles and videos to highlight underrepresented student success. Similarly, she says she will expand the site’s focus by adding postgraduate and faculty resources as well.

Skop and her team have also discussed expanding the STEM Diversity Network beyond UW-Madison. Such a move would allow other institutions to create individual sites that would link to a collaborative homepage that provides general STEM diversity resources.

“The site is a great model for how to connect students and advocates and to create dialogue,” she says. “It’s a great way to show students that there are people who truly care about their success.”

For more information, visit stemdiversity.wisc.edu.