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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility: Creating a scientific workplace where everyone belongs

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) initiatives in the sciences are designed to create a scientific community that wholly embraces everyone, particularly those from underrepresented and underserved communities, to create the strongest scientific workforce possible, in keeping with the missions of both ORAU and ORISE.

Think of the ORAU and ORISE approach to investment in DEIA initiatives as a four-legged stool, where each leg represents one of the following: K-12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education; workforce development initiatives and research participation programs; engagement with Minority Serving Institutions; and overcoming barriers to careers in the sciences.

Following is a glimpse of ORAU and ORISE DEIA initiatives and their impact on the current and future scientific workforce.

K-12 STEM Education

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility: Creating a scientific workplace where everyone belongs

Jenna Porter with a photography student

The halls of the Baltimore school echoed with the sounds of celebration when Jenna Porter (pictured right) was named the winner of the first-ever CIA Mission Possible Classroom Transformation.

Porter, visual arts teacher at Roland Park Middle and Elementary School, won $25,000 in new technology for her classroom. She purchased new cameras and photography equipment, which she hopes will inspire her students to become photographers, designers and graphic artists.

“A student did a backflip in the hallway, social distanced of course,” Porter told the Baltimore Sun. “We were able to capture him in mid-air with a fast shutter speed. So, just watching their hidden talents come out while we’re using this equipment is such a beautiful sight.”

The ORISE K-12 STEM Education team managed the Mission Possible Classroom Transformation competitions for the CIA. In addition to Baltimore, competitions were held in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va. The CIA also sponsored robotics academies in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Richmond. Both programs were designed to reach underserved and underrepresented students in urban school systems to ultimately increase diversity among future science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) workers.

“The robotics academy in Oak Ridge was made accessible to students who are not usually able to attend, because we provided transportation for them,” said Jennifer Tyrell, senior K-12 project manager. “However, they could get to Bearden Middle, so we picked up 11 students and drove them to Oak Ridge every day. That’s 11 students who wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to robotics and programming.”

Like Mission Possible and the Robotics Academies, the Joint Science Technology Institute residential programs in Maryland and New Mexico are designed to reach underserved and underrepresented students. The summer high school and middle school residential programs, sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission, are designed to increase the numbers of first-generation college students.

“We’ve done work and continued to do work in the area of improving DEIA,” said Desmond Stubbs, Ph.D., Director of STEM Diversity Initiatives. “We’ve done workshops with laboratories, and we’re collaborating with partner agencies and university consortium members, and so much more.”

Workforce Development

Engaging students at all levels—along with recent graduates at the associates, bachelor’s, and master’s levels, postdoctoral researchers and faculty members from underrepresented groups—has long been part of DEIA initiatives at ORAU and ORISE. Program sponsors have long focused on including people from underrepresented and underserved communities, which includes racial and ethnic minorities, first-generation and rural college students, LGBTIA+ students, veterans, individuals with disabilities and others.

“I think it’s important to note that diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility is something that has been important to our sponsors for a long time,” said Leigha Witt, group manager for K-12 programs. “Our first program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities started in the early eighties.”

Witt adds that the effort to connect the opportunities our sponsors have available in their laboratories or agencies with as diverse a population of students and participants as possible has been very intentional.

Recruiting diverse faculty is especially important. “Providing a chance for faculty to come into a national laboratory or agency and have access to the resources, facilities and primary investigators, and to be part of current research that they can then take back to their classrooms and to their students, can be life-changing for the educator and their students,” Witt said.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team Program, managed by ORISE, is one example of a sustained and successful research participation program for Minority Serving Institutions' (MSIs) students and faculty. The program targets early career faculty, undergraduates and graduate students who engage with DHS Centers of Excellence—typically a university-led consortium—to better understand the mission and research needs of DHS and make advances in DHS research.

“This has been a resilient and innovative program since 2010, and we’ve had more than 275 people participate in the program,” said Leigh Ann Pennington, ORISE labor economist. “This program is innovative because it offers student and faculty teams from MSIs a summer of research at a DHS Center of Excellence rather than a federal research facility. Additionally, faculty are eligible to receive a follow-on grant from DHS to continue the research started over the summer back at the home MSI during the academic year.”

There are many others, including a virtual training initiative for MSI students starting out in mentored research opportunities, and more are coming, Stubbs said.

“We’ve had conversations with Sandia National Laboratory, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pathways to Excellence and Innovation (PEI) Initiative,” he said.

MSI engagement

The NIH program Stubbs mentioned gives ORAU an opportunity to assist Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in strengthening contracting opportunities with federal government agencies while improving collaborations with small businesses. ORAU is a partner in a group of 46 businesses and 21 HBCUs selected for the second cohort of the PEI Initiative.

The PEI Initiative was created to address the challenges faced by HBCUs pursuing federal contracting opportunities with the NIH. Today, only three HBCUs currently manage active NIH contracts, Stubbs said.

“PEI is a uniquely designed step-by-step road map to create significantly more opportunities for HBCUs providing training and technical assistance to schools applying for NIH contracts and grants. All of this is done through collaboration with small business contractors,” he said.

The MSI Research Council, a subgroup of ORAU’s University Consortium, is another important way ORAU works to foster relationships between MSIs and federal government agencies across the country.

“MSIs are sources of untapped talent,” Stubbs said. “We want to recruit the best and brightest students and faculty members to be part of advancing the nation’s science, education, workforce development and health priorities. Helping our federal agency partners find these talented individuals is an important priority for us.

The 29 members of the MSI Research Council are working together to develop a strategic plan for advancing the research and education capabilities of its members  and to develop a model framework for leading partnerships of excellence.

Overcoming barriers

In fiscal year 2021, 23 percent of research participation program appointments (1,331 out of 5,095) involved participants affiliated with MSIs. Additionally, of the

765 colleges and universities affiliated with research participants in fiscal year 2021, 217 of these institutions (28 percent) were designated as MSIs. While these percentages are the highest on record and demonstrate great progress in recruiting underserved and underrepresented groups for careers in STEM fields, there are still barriers to be overcome.

“We need to do a better job at thinking about ways to engage with groups that are underrepresented in STEM, but may not have been the focus of past efforts,” Pennington said. These groups include but are not limited to first-generation college students, individuals from lower socioeconomic groups, veterans and individuals with disabilities.

While many past efforts have focused on engaging women to pursue STEM careers, these efforts are even more important now. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 3.5 million mothers with school-age children have left the workforce, including women in physics and other scientific disciplines. “More women than men have had to put their careers on hold because of childcare and education issues caused by the pandemic, which has magnified barriers to entry for women in physics,” said Laura Davenport, Ph.D. ORISE evaluation specialist for STEM workforce development.

Davenport and her team are working with researchers from the University of Memphis to examine systemic barriers and acute pandemic-related obstacles to gender diversity in science. Their work is funded through the ORAU-Directed Research and Development Program, which provides a path for funding innovative, research-based approaches or solutions that capitalize on the core capabilities of ORAU and the research interests of our member universities.

Davenport’s research will be completed later in 2022, but her team anticipates an important outcome.

“We anticipate outcomes will give credibility to the idea that diversity cannot be achieved by simply adding members of underrepresented groups to an established environment,” Davenport said. In other words, integration of underrepresented and underserved groups has to  be seamless.

Seamless integration of DEIA initiatives from kindergarten through research participation is the ultimate goal. By investing in DEIA initiatives for K-12 STEM education, workforce development initiatives and research participation programs, engagement with MSIs, and overcoming barriers to all of the above, ORAU and ORISE, along with our government agency partners and our University Consortium will continue to strengthen the nation’s scientific workforce for years and even decades to come.