Northeastern Wins $10 Million NSF Grant to Boost People of Color and Women in Engineering Nationally
Despite decades of scattered efforts to improve diversity in engineering, the number of women and people of color remains far below their representation in the U.S. population as a whole.
To solve this problem, Northeastern’s College of Engineering won a prestigious $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build a system and a network to increase engineering degrees among women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Color) nationally.
“Our goal is to scale up things that are already working, not reinvent the wheel,” says Michael Silevitch, Robert D. Black College of Engineering distinguished professor, electrical and computer engineering, who led the grant writing team. “We want to identify strategies that work and have momentum, then expand them regionally and across the nation.”
The five-year goal of the new Engineering PLUS (Partnerships Launching Underrepresented Students) Alliance is to increase the annual number of engineering degrees among underrepresented groups to 100,000 among undergraduates and 30,000 among graduate students. Currently, the BIPOC community accounts for just 18 percent of engineering graduates and 34 percent of the population as a whole, while women account for 23 percent of the graduates and 51 percent of the total population.
The failure to tap into this enormous pool of talent compromises our competitiveness as a nation, according to Karl Reid, Northeastern’s Chief Diversity Officer and PI for the new Engineering PLUS Alliance.
“We need everyone involved in innovation and invention,” says Reid. “Diversity makes us better. It helps us identify new problems in engineering and shapes the way we solve them. Engineering is a collaborative effort and research shows that diverse groups are more effective than homogeneous teams at solving complex problems and generating new ideas.”
To rectify this siloed approach, the Alliance will create a regional structure that is both sustainable and can be replicated across the nation. The first step will be the creation of a New England and a Midwest regional hub of academic, business, and nonprofit institutions to work cooperatively to build diversity. The next step will be to replicate this structure in four other major regions across the country, involving 150 education institutions.
“We will be taking an engineering approach to address a complex problem that has persisted in our society,” says Claire Duggan, director of STEM programs and operations in the College of Engineering. “We need to accelerate the replication of best practices and need to develop buy-in from the institutional leaders.”
The Alliance will work in cooperation with existing organizations such as the NSF Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), the National GEM Consortium, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), and representative members of the 50K Coalition, which includes affinity groups that support Black, Latinx, Native American, and women engineering students.
To ensure this regional concept takes hold, the Alliance will establish a Peer Leadership Training Academy to prepare 450 academics, administrators, and industry leaders to become change agents among universities, high schools, community colleges, and businesses in the region.
One distinctive value Northeastern will bring to this effort is its close ties with industry leaders, who will be essential to both the training pipeline and funding a sustainable national effort.
“Northeastern has more than 2,000 industry co-op partners for engineering students,” notes Richard Harris, assistant dean for Academic Scholarship, Mentoring, and Outreach and director of NU Program in Multicultural Engineering. “We have been working intensely on engineering diversity for 30 years. The university’s first Rhodes Scholar was a Black, female engineer.”
Harris also notes that the three pillars of research at Northeastern are health, security, and sustainability—all are top national priorities and all require innovative engineers.
In addition, the four leaders of the Alliance—Reid, Silevitch, Harris, Duggan, and Karen Horting of the Society of Women Engineers—each have decades of experience working to increase engineering diversity at all levels of the pipeline from the K-12 to the PhD level.
“There are structures and institutions in our society that are unwelcoming to women and BIPOC students. Through collective impact, the Alliance will catalyze systems change that lower barriers and increase opportunities for success. We’re working on changing the K-PhD systems by identifying and scaling successful initiatives that address academic and social challenges, with a particular emphasis on transition points,” explains Reid.
Silevitch believes that a focus on transition points is key. “It’s so important to replicate successes like Summer Bridge programs, which provide additional instruction, mentoring, and social skill building so students will thrive in a new environment that may be foreign to their everyday experience.”
“There are pockets of successful programs that are siloed across the nation,” says Harris. “We need to align and integrate these initiatives systematically to create a transformative and sustainable approach to K-PhD education nationally.”