Montana State University

Grant to help MSU increase Native American, minority grad students in STEM

December 31, 2014 -- MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University and three partners across the Northwest are working together to increase the number of American Indian and other underrepresented minorities entering and earning doctorates in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

With a new four-year grant awarded from the National Science Foundation, MSU and the University of Montana will focus on developing an Indigenous mentoring model for American Indian graduate students in STEM degree programs, while the University of Idaho and Washington State University will partner in this effort and lead distinct activities, said Karlene Hoo, dean of The Graduate School at MSU.  

Together with help from Montana Tech, Salish Kootenai College and Heritage University and other tribal colleges in the region, this Pacific Northwest Alliance will develop a circuit for success through strategic activities for underrepresented students in STEM, Hoo said. Each partner will research different issues that affect enrollment and recruitment, then share their findings and put them into practice. MSU will use its $286,000 portion of the grant to study doctoral socialization and develop a mutual mentoring model.

“There are no closed minds. No one has the secret potion,” Hoo said. “It’s going to be hard work, but we are willing to do the work and have the conversations to get there.”

Preliminary work showed that the alliance will face three challenges: developing recruitment strategies, developing a mentoring program to improve student retention rates, and coordinating resources to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.

Hoo said she’ll know more after the research is complete, but one possible finding from MSU’s study is that underrepresented students would benefit from having several mentors instead of just one. Perhaps one mentor would help them apply for grants, while others would help them navigate digital libraries, prepare for presentations and help them write scientific papers worthy of publication.

Another potential finding could be that mentoring should go beyond the traditional model of one faculty member mentoring one graduate student, Hoo said. Perhaps graduate students could also mentor each other or graduate students could mentor undergraduates. Faculty members who already work with Native Americans could mentor faculty mentors with less experience working with them.

It seems that increasing the number of underrepresented students in graduate school would take more intentional recruitment efforts, additional scholarships and increased understanding of degree impact on community and the potential for obtaining a high-paying job, Hoo said. Academic success would seem more likely if it fit the students’ culture and spoke to something deep inside of them. Academic rigor would have to be balanced with a nurturing environment.

“We don’t want to find out that the reason for not continuing on to the final degree is a coldness of the institution, a feeling that the mentoring was not satisfying to whatever degree they are looking for,” Hoo said.

MSU faculty members are already doing a good job of working with Native American students, and the new grant will build on that success, Hoo said. She added that the grant also applies to master’s degree students, although it specifically targets doctoral students.

“For countries like the United States to be competitive, you have to have graduate students at all levels,” she said.

Many cultures believe in undergraduate education, but not every country feels strongly about graduate education, Hoo said. Fortunately, she said, the United States does. She added that there’s a growing need in the United States for professional STEM expertise. Highly educated students from underrepresented groups offer diverse insights that would benefit the STEM fields and country as a whole. 

“These students bring rich knowledge and culture to us,” Hoo said. “It’s up to us to recognize it, accept it and make the best use of multiple voices and cultures to really be successful. It’s not a game.”

Work on the grant will be conducted in phases, Hoo said. The teams will conduct research the first year. During subsequent years, they will share their findings and adapt them for their own institution.

Contact: Karlene Hoo, (406) 994-4145, karlene.hoo@montana.edu.