NSF award supports island students in marine science careers

October 10, 2019

NSF award supports new effort to engage underrepresented island students in marine and environmental sciences

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Maryland Sea Grant College have been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help grow the number and diversity of students who are interested in and eventually seek careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. This grant is part of the $10 million, eight-institution SEAS Islands Alliance that will engage underrepresented minority students from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam in marine and environmental sciences by illuminating a full career pathway, from middle school to graduate school and job placement. The INCLUDES Alliance program is highly competitive, with only three awards this year.

The new STEM effort builds on the success of the Centro TORTUGA program in Puerto Rico that expanded geoscience research opportunities for more than 50 Hispanic undergraduates in the last three years.

“This is a visionary and innovative initiative to engage talented students from traditionally underserved island communities. The scale and scope of this will make an impact on the nation’s STEM enterprise,” said Peter Goodwin, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). “We recognize that research institutions must do more to help underrepresented students build their identity in the geosciences, particularly given the lack of advancement in representation during the past 40 years. This investment will result in significant gains for both participants and national efforts to ensure the face of the work force in the geosciences reflects the face of America.”

The five-year, multi-institution program aims to empower students to pursue their interest in marine and environmental sciences and increase their sense of belonging in STEM through scientific and professional development training, mentorship, family support programs, and cohort-building activities.

“This program will create a huge infrastructure for helping to guide and support island students into the workforce in the marine sciences across all three island territories,” said Lora Harris, who is leading the Puerto Rico hub for UMCES. Other Puerto Rico hub partners include Universidad Ana G. Mendez, EcoExploratorio, Vieques Conservation and Historical Trusts, Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Puerto Rico Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales, Para la Naturaleza, and the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute.

The program builds on the success of the Centro TORTUGA (Tropical Oceanography Research Training for Undergraduate Academics) program in Puerto Rico, funded by NSF and led by Harris and UMCES faculty Jamie Pierson and Maryland Sea Grant College Director Fredrika Moser. Centro TORTUGA focuses on early undergraduate education and expanded geoscience research opportunities for more than 50 Hispanic undergraduates in the last three years.

“We are excited about the opportunity to expand on our current work in Puerto Rico with our Ana G. Méndez University partners to create more marine science opportunities for students,” said Moser.

"By combining the research and teaching expertise at the partner institutions, we can provide tremendous opportunities for students that would not have been available without this program and the efforts of the faculty involved," said Pierson.  

Island regions are strongly connected to the oceans that surround them and are among the United States’ most diverse communities. They are also especially vulnerable to challenges being studied in geosciences, such as sea-level rise, storms, drought, overfishing, land-use change, and food security. As variations in weather and climate further impact these settings, students from U.S. island territories and affiliated states are uniquely poised to contribute to the field.

Even so, few projects have attempted to collaborate with these communities to broaden participation in the STEM workforce and too few students are graduating with degrees in STEM to meet present and future workforce needs. Additionally, individuals from underrepresented and underserved groups comprise a disproportionately smaller percentage of degrees awarded and jobs occupied in STEM fields. This is especially true in the geosciences—the study of the Earth, including its oceans, atmosphere, rivers, lakes, and soils—where only 8% of the workforce is made up of individuals from underserved and underrepresented minority groups.

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Associate Professor Lora Harris is leading the SEAS Island Alliance Puerto Rico hub.

“Within all the different subject areas of STEM, we have made the least amount of progress in fixing the diversity problem in the geosciences. Making sure that we have a scientific community that reflects the workforce of America is critical,” said Harris. “Island students have the potential to help close this gap, especially if they are trained through culturally-relevant and place-based pathways projects.”

The “NSF Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES): Supporting Emerging Aquatic Scientists Island Alliance —or “NSF INCLUDES: SEAS Island Alliance”—is a comprehensive national initiative to enhance U.S. leadership in discoveries and innovations by focusing on diversity, inclusion, and broadening participation in STEM at scale.

The SEAS Island Alliance will connect individuals to each other across the islands and partner institutions, and to additional resources in the geosciences, providing expertise and mentors through the creation of new island networks. The program will also provide important new insights into how individual and collective identity can affect students’ sense of belonging and persistence in STEM fields. Studies show that family support can encourage underrepresented minority students to pursue science careers and that those with support are more likely to purse their STEM interests.

“We know a sense of belonging is really key to the success of underrepresented minorities in the geosciences,” said Harris.

Over five years, the SEAS Islands Alliance will support 575 middle/high school students in geoscience enrichment programs and 70 undergraduate students in early-career and research experiences. In addition, 60 upper-level undergraduate and/or master’s students will participate in an intensive eight-week summer Bridge to Graduate School Program and 25 of those students will receive graduate training at participating institutions. Twenty-five of the SEAS Island Alliance Fellows will find local workforce positions in each of the island hubs.

“With the new NSF INCLUDES Alliance awards we continue to expand our national network of partners who are helping us build a more diverse, inclusive, innovative, and well-prepared STEM workforce,” said Karen Marrongelle, head of NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate. “These awards will generate benefits that extend far beyond the organizations and institutions receiving them. The Alliances will create important new knowledge on how to collaboratively bring broadening participation initiatives to scale at local, regional and national levels.”

NSF INCLUDES Alliances develop partnerships among stakeholders across the public, private, and academic sectors, share promising practices for broadening participation and other useful data, contribute to the knowledge base on broadening participation in STEM through research, and establish a framework for supporting communications and networking among partners.

For decades, NSF and its partners have sought to create opportunities in STEM for all U.S. residents, ensuring that no matter who they are or where they come from, they have access to education and employment. NSF INCLUDES, one of the foundation's Big Ideas for Future Investment, seeks to enhance collaboration among those working to broaden participation in STEM, to strengthen existing relationships, bring in new partners and provide resources and support to enhance their work.