A Training Ground for Women of Color in STEM: Spelman College Tackles the STEM Pipeline as a Social Justice Issue

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.

Training the granddaughters of the “double-bind” is critically important work. It has been approximately forty years since the groundbreaking report “The Double Bind” examined the complexities of being a woman of color in a STEM career. The report summarized the collective experiences of women of color as they are shaped by, among other factors, past and current family dynamics, academic preparation, ethnic and cultural biases, and difficulties experienced throughout their career path (Malcolm, Hall, & Brown, 1976). The experiences described were complex and diverse, yet shared common undertones that often coincide with race and gender differences. Despite the widespread conversation prompted by the report, many are still concerned about women in science and are troubled that the barriers highlighted in 1976 still remain today (Lempinen, 2011). A more ominous fact is that the numbers of women in STEM have shown little gains (Rosser & Taylor, 2009). In fact, there has been a subtle but steady decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by both white and black women (Lehming, Gawalt, Cohen, & Bell, 2013). While the US population is more than 50% female, only 24% of the STEM workforce is female. Furthermore, 33% of women entering college intend to major in STEM, with 50% of these majors earning science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, but with less than 23% of these women earning a graduate degree in these fields. Moreover, the level of success achieved by women in the field, in comparison to their male counterparts, is significantly lower than the female-to-male population ratio. In light of the national statistics, there is a clear need to promote the increased presence of women in the STEM workforce. However, there is even more need to train women of color in STEM how to navigate an infrastructure with systemic racism and gender inequities that requires more than just “leaning in,” as suggested by Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook.

Spelman College has sustained a strong record of educating African American women in the sciences and mathematics who earn the doctorate degree and pursue professional scientific careers. It has been noted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that Spelman College is the second highest ranked institution from which black science and engineering (S&E) doctorate recipients earn bachelor’s degrees (Fiegener & Proudfoot, 2013). Spelman faculty have capitalized on this effort to demonstrate that immersing our students in a culture of research, mentoring, and networking can promote success and attainment of a PhD degree in STEM fields (Jackson & Winfield, 2014). As mentors, they also help students understand their role in this atmosphere of social injustice and how the intersecting roles of race and gender may impact their careers as African American women in STEM. From our outreach activities with the young (grades 6-8) to training our undergraduates, Spelman’s academic, research, and community programs have led the College to becoming a leader in educating black women who go on to excel in the sciences. This paper highlights the outcomes and successes of various campus initiatives and addresses why Spelman is uniquely positioned to solve the inequities of the underrepresentation of African-American women in STEM fields and contribute to national efforts to create a diverse population in the 21st-century scientific workforce.

The RISE of the Next Generation Black Female Scientists

Percentage of RISE Scholars going to PhD programs by year

The NIH-funded Spelman Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program seeks to address this critical need by leading the effort to produce the next generation of Black women scientists. One of our longstanding student research programs, RISE shows students that pursuing a career in biomedical research is an intellectually exciting way to impact the world. Our goal is to immerse students in a dynamic interdisciplinary research community, while taking a holistic approach to their professional development and making them more competitive for admission into top doctoral programs in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. We do this work with very specific and concrete aims:

  • To increase student awareness of biomedical research and to encourage students to pursue a career in research. Activities include a Seminar Series and our RISE Affiliate program for students who want to learn about research without paid laboratory positions. To introduce incoming freshman and rising sophomores to research and research careers, we offer the Summer Training About Research Techniques (START) program, which includes placing students into active research laboratories for 6 weeks of part-time work, as well as having them participate in workshops that provide academic or professional development engagement.
  • To develop empirical research knowledge and skills so students will be prepared for the rigor of advanced research training in doctoral programs. Activities include the Academic Year Research Development program, in which students participate as paid members of active research laboratories. We also offer a structured sequence of academic preparation modules (Critical Skills for Investigation) that focus on critical thinking, quantitative skills, responsible conduct of research, research design, reading comprehension, and scientific writing. All RISE Scholars are required to demonstrate in-depth comprehension of research design, present their research every year, attend at least one professional conference, and experience peer review of their work. To prepare incoming freshmen for laboratory placement, the Pre-Research ExPerience (PREP) laboratory skills boot camp targets highly promising freshmen who lack research skills and experience, giving them an opportunity to learn basic laboratory skills in a concentrated timeframe, before being placed in working laboratories.
  • To increase the number of students directly entering PhD research programs by making them more competitive for admission. We are taking a more holistic approach by not only enhancing the graduate school admissions portrait, but also developing the “soft skills” that will promote success in current and future laboratory placements. It is required that all seniors take the GRE and apply to graduate school. A yearly retreat with mentors and RISE students helps to foster better understanding of the many cultures of science institutions and laboratory interpersonal dynamics.

The Mathematics Research and Mentoring Program

The Spelman mathematics department has made it a goal to help increase the number of African American women who get degrees in the mathematical sciences. To help achieve this goal, the diversity of the mathematics faculty has been an important factor. Six of the ten full-time faculty in the mathematics department are women, five of whom have a doctorate in the mathematical sciences. Of the five women faculty with doctorates, four are black. Also key are the programs and activities that the department has in place to help the nearly 100 mathematics majors each year succeed in the major and to encourage as many of them as possible to continue their studies at the graduate level.

One such program is the NSF-funded Mathematics Research and Mentoring Program (Math RaMP). The overall goal of Math RaMP is to increase the number of African American women who pursue advanced degrees or careers in the mathematical sciences with an enhanced understanding of the broader career options available in pure and applied mathematics, as well as statistics and mathematics education. Scholarships are provided to students in the program to minimize the need for off-campus employment in non-related areas. A primary component of Math RaMP is the Scholars Program, open to sophomore, junior, and senior mathematics majors with a 3.0+ overall and 3.2+ GPA in mathematics. The Scholars Program is designed to prepare and direct high-potential students to graduate education and to careers in the mathematical sciences. The early introduction to research is used to connect students to higher academic aspirations and broader career goals. Sophomores in the program participate in a Journal Club where they get an introduction to reading mathematical journals and technical papers. During monthly meetings, students also learn technical writing skills and are introduced to mathematical software packages. Juniors and seniors in the program conduct independent research with a mathematics or STEM faculty member. They write a technical summary of their research and present their findings at Spelman College’s Annual Research Day. They are encouraged to also present their research at outside conferences. In addition to the Journal Club and conducting research, Math RaMP students are involved in mentoring first- and second-year mathematics majors. From 2011 to 2015, the Math RaMP program had a total of 24 participants with 10 of those students currently in graduate school. Since 2000, over 30 Spelman mathematics majors earned a master’s degree and 32 earned a doctoral degree. At the doctoral level, this is an average of two each year, an important contribution to the national average of nine black women per year receiving a doctorate in mathematics and statistics.

The New Living and Learning in an Interdisciplinary Networked Community of STEM Scholars (LINCS) Program

The LINCS program is one of the newest student programs at Spelman. The motivation to start this program was the fact that underrepresented minorities in general and African American women in particular, may be academically well prepared to succeed in STEM fields and engage in research experiences that develop their identities as researchers, but still leave the STEM fields because of a sense of isolation and lack of support. Through this program we aim to create cohorts of students, with strong and lasting bonds, who would move together up the academic and career ladder. The goal is to leverage peer-peer and peer-outside networks. This is being achieved through the establishment of a Living and Learning Community (LLC) of scholars. LLCs create a continuum between the academic lives and the personal lives of students. LLCs have been in existence at Spelman since the eighties. The Honors program and the Social Justice Fellows program are examples of an older and a more recent successful LLC. A large body of literature documents the benefits of LLCs at the undergraduate level, such as increasing a sense of accountability (Charleston, 2012), increasing student persistence, particularly among first-generation college students and low-income students (Myers, Brown, & Pavel, 2010), promoting the production of STEM graduates (Nestor-Baker & Kerkor, 2008), and increasing the likelihood students will attend graduate studies in STEM fields (DesJardins, McCall, Ott, & Kim, 2010).

The inaugural cohort consists of nine residential scholars and eight affiliates majoring in all STEM disciplines. The residential scholars are housed in a newly renovated residence for Social Justice Fellows. All have a declared interest in pursuing a STEM PhD or MD and most participate in other programs that provide research opportunities either during the academic year or the summer. Some of the activities include monthly meetings with the program co-directors emphasizing their career development and submission of weekly reflection voice blogs. Students’ personal growth and professional development are monitored through these activities as well as surveys. Signature activities of this program are geared towards cultivating an awareness of and analytically engaging issues around being a woman of color in STEM and around inequality in general. These activities include book discussions, attendance of panels and talks, and discussion of research papers with invited guests.

Supporting Computational Algorithmic Thinking (SCAT): Supporting the African-American Female Scientists of the Future

Spelman seeks to invest early in the science ecosystem by targeting middle school students, ultimately creating a multi-pronged approach to establishing a national culture that encourages women of color to reach their full potential in the sciences. One relevant field of interest is computational algorithmic thinking (CAT), the ability to design, implement, and assess the implementation of algorithms to solve a range of problems. CAT focuses specifically on how the human, as computing agent, designs, implements, and assesses an algorithm (an “abstraction of a step-by-step procedure for taking input and producing some desired output” [Wing, 2008]), or set of algorithms to solve a problem. CAT is focused on the algorithms designed, adapted, implemented, and discarded by the human (as computing agent) on the journey toward choosing the “right” abstractions (Thomas, 2008; Wing, 2008). CAT is an important scaffold on-ramp as students develop more advanced computational thinking (CT) capabilities and apply CT to solve problems that are more constrained and require greater and greater expertise. CAT embodies the ability to think critically and creatively to solve problems and has applicability in a range of areas from computer science to cooking to music (Wing, 2006; Wing, 2010).

SCAT, a longitudinal between-subjects research project created by Spelman computer science faculty member JaKita Thomas, explores how African-American middle-school girls develop CAT capabilities over time in the context of game design. SCAT is a free enrichment program designed to expose middle-school girls to game design. The goals are: 1) to explore the development of CAT capabilities over three years in African-American middle-school girls as they engage in iterative game design, and 2) to increase the awareness of participants to the broad applicability of CAT across a number of industries and career paths. Participants, called SCAT Scholars, develop CAT capabilities as they engage in the game design cycle to design more and more complex games (Fullerton, Swain, & Hoffman, 2004). SCAT Scholars begin the program the summer prior to 6th grade and continue through 8th grade. They engage in three types of activities each year (called a SCAT Season): 1) a two-week intensive game design summer experience; 2) twelve technical workshops in which Scholars implement the games they have designed using visual and programming languages (e.g., SCRATCH, App Inventor) in preparation for submission to national game design competitions (e.g., National STEM Video Game Challenge, Verizon Innovation App Challenge); and 3) field trips during which Scholars learn about applications of CAT in different industries and careers. Each SCAT Season runs from June or July through May.

While data analysis is ongoing, preliminary results are beginning to reveal some very promising insights, not only in regards to the development of CAT capabilities among African-American middle-school girls, but also in regards to their perceptions of themselves as problem solvers and game designers. Data suggests that game design is an engaging context for this population. While 95% of the Scholars had never designed a game nor used SCRATCH prior to this experience, the Scholars seem extremely engaged during the first SCAT Season. In fact, SCAT had an 85% retention rate across Seasons 1 and 2, and a 96% retention rate across Seasons 2 and 3. The SCAT program is currently in its third year of enactment, having worked with the same set of African-American middle-school girls over the course of these past three years.


There is an art to cultivating black women scientists. One must understand that the women they are training occupy multiple intersections of race, gender, and science, and that supporting women of color pursuing PhDs in the STEM disciplines is a social justice issue. Spelman College is changing the culture of STEM. With talented faculty creating impactful and innovative research and mentoring training programs that are at the cutting edge of technology and science, Spelman is closing the science gap and producing women who are equipped with the intellectual engagement and personal experience required of 21st-century change agents.


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