February 2014

Featured Article

A Proactive Approach to Enhancing Student and Faculty Diversity

By Ann Gordon-Ross

My career path to academia was by no means an anomaly, but it was a fortunate accident that was propelled by a long series of good decision making, supportive parents/educators, and a lot of luck. In kindergarten, my first experience with a computer was an Apple IIe and Logo programming. My parents, even while struggling with money, purchased an Apple IIe for use at home, and subscribed me to a programming magazine, which allowed me to type in Basic programming code and make an ASCII Santa Claus land on a skyscraping rectangle. I did not know what I was doing, what the numbers and bizarre statements meant, but it was fun.

In fifth grade, my father helped me build a mouse trap car, which propelled across the auditorium stage, exceeding the measureable distance of the car’s ability and far surpassing my classmates’ cars. Whereas my dad did help with the construction and woodworking, I made the design decisions (I only now wish I had not let my teacher keep that amazing car).

As I progressed in school, my mom said we needed a more powerful computer than the aging Apple IIe that I continued to play games on. She told my father we needed a Macintosh SE30, and the $5000 it cost was worth it. He said no. She said yes, and purchased the computer anyway (they hid well the strife I can imagine that purchased caused!).

During high school, I was the epitome of an underachiever, but in that I only did the minimum to ensure straight As, except for my math and science courses, which were my favorite and never felt like “work.” I took no programming courses, my high school did not offer them; I took no Advanced Placement courses (except for calculus, since that was the fun class), I did not want to do extra work over the summer or during the school term; I took several Regional Occupational Program (ROP) classes, because Graphic Printing was easy and took up two periods first thing in the morning and I could sleep. My principal spoke with me many times, chastising me for not living up to my potential.  I told her I would live up to that later (I am sure she would now be proud, if she knew of my accomplishments since high school).

When I applied to college, I only applied to one college, the University of California, Riverside, since my brother went there and I could live with my parents. I had no idea what major to declare, so my mom suggested General Engineering since I build that record breaking mouse trap car. During my first quarter, I took my first C++ programming course and immediately changed my major to Computer Science. I soon discovered that I could learn how to build that laptop my mom bought me for school, the video game console I saved my hard-earned money for because my father thought that they were a waste of time and money, and I understood that bizarre error message the ATM machine gave me (halted in state 5).

Nearing my undergraduate college graduation, I never considered anything other than getting a job, since it was the Dot Com boom and I had a considerable job offer after my first interview. However, I had just started dating this really nice guy I met in a Computer Engineering course, and he was staying for graduate school to get a Ph.D. On a Wednesday, I decided to take the GRE on that coming Saturday, and applied to graduate school “just in case I decided to stay.” I also had a very encouraging, successful, and motivating undergraduate research advisor, whom I could see myself working for. I turned down the job offer, and stayed for graduate school, but never planned to pursue academia, and did not really know what I would do with my new degree. 

I attest the majority of my career choice to my advisor’s tutelage. He never outwardly promoted a career path in academia, but I looked at his career and life, and quickly decided that that was what I wanted (little did I know he had already secured tenure).  He was not the stereotypical professor; he was young, vibrant, and became a close mentor and friend. I remember the most profound thing he said while we walked to our daily lunch one day: “You know, I can never see you having a boss.” I was one that wanted to choose her work, choose her own research, and choose her own path, and academia was the logical conclusion. And remember that guy I met as an undergraduate? We both worked for the same advisor while getting our Ph.Ds., were still together when we began looking for joint faculty positions, and he proposed a week after we accepted our job offers from the University of Florida in 2007, and I have never looked back.

Whereas a career path, such as my accidental series of events, can lead to diversity in STEM academia, this experience is not typical and my “accidental” choices were directly influenced by my personality, mindset, and self-confidence, which was clearly molded first by my parents (both of which were lower education teachers), and later through the encouragement of my educators. I have never considered myself as a “women” in a STEM field, but rather as a “researcher” in a STEM field, and have been fortunate enough to be encouraged and guided in this unbiased manner. I never felt I had to work harder just because I was female and had to prove myself more than others, rather I only felt I had to work as hard as possible to achieve my personal goals. I never felt discriminated against; never felt like the “odd man out” or not part of the “boys club” (even when I was the only girl in a class of 50). I am sure much of this stems from the fact that I had a brother seven and a half years older than me, and I looked up to him and his successes (he became an equine veterinarian and is now an academic).

Unfortunately, these aspects are not reality for everyone, and many women with high STEM potential can easily be turned off from these fields due to many factors, some of which can be as simple as a single statement said at an influential moment. Many individuals tend to follow what they feel is a standard career path, dictated by heritage, family tradition, gender, economic pressures, ethnicity, peer pressure, etc. For example, simply a parent telling a child that the child does not have to do well in math/science because the parent did not do well in those courses, can turn a child from a STEM field.

Therefore, educators have a responsibility to take an active role in promoting diversity in STEM fields. Educators cannot sit back and wait for the “accidental” career paths, but rather must identify, mentor, and encourage all underrepresented minorities to pursue and unlock these individuals’ potentials.

Given my personal motivation towards female diversity in STEM fields, middle school is a critical developmental period. I have been fortunate to experience a spectrum of educational ages through the eyes of educators. My father taught high school for 35 years, and my mother has ranged from third grade to high school for 25 years. Spurred by observations from my well-loved-middle-school-teacher mother, middle school girls, especially in eight grade, are prone to discouragement from math and science courses due to peer pressure, even as small as a friend sourly noting a peer’s higher grade on a math test, and social development pressures, typically concerning boys, jewelry, makeup, music, the latest gadget, etc.

Even though middle school is a critical developmental period, all ages are important for mentoring and encouragement, and higher-education educators must take an active role in promoting and seeking diversity in STEM academia and fields. Therefore, higher-education academics cannot rely on the diversity to accidently come to them, but rather must take an active role through lower education outreach and involvements. Educators can make a profound impact by visiting lower education schools and delivering motivational and engaging talks, relating personal experiences, hosting visitingstudents in research labs, arranging hands-on activities, personally mentoring students, actively engaging and educating parents/teachers, forming higher-/lower-education academic partnerships to develop wide-scoped curriculum and activities, partnering graduate students with lower-education students to promote more closely age related mentoring, to name a few.

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