Diversity and Democracy

Reconsidering STEM Faculty Professional Development: Daring Approaches to Broadening Participation in STEM

Even though colleges and universities in the United States produce nearly two million graduates each year (Ryan and Bauman 2016), American higher education is not without significant challenges related to the success of its most valuable stakeholders—undergraduate students. Arguably, most pressing among these is the hemorrhagic loss of talented undergraduate students from the STEM disciplines. Indeed, every fifteen minutes, a student majoring in STEM either changes his or her major to a non-STEM discipline or withdraws from college altogether (NSF 2017). This phenomenon disproportionately, although not exclusively, affects African American, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American (collectively, AALANA) students, who now comprise the fastest-growing undergraduate populations in US colleges and universities (NSF 2017).

For decades, academic researchers and policy analysts alike have foretold the danger that this loss of talent poses for US global preeminence in STEM fields. Yet our centenarian institutional structures—and often we STEM higher education reformers ourselves—doggedly persist in systemically and systematically marginalizing the very students on whom we must depend to advance the scientific discovery and innovation that will yield improved health outcomes, sustained economic growth, and a secure cyberinfrastructure. Advancing discovery and innovation demands that US institutions of higher education, and the professional organizations that support them, hear and heed the clarion call for greater diversity in STEM. We cannot continue to depend on mere workaround strategies that fail to address the root causes of the underrepresentation of AALANA students in these disciplines. Instead, we must embrace approaches that are more reflective than prescriptive, more open- than closed-ended, and more daring than accommodating.

The Essential Role of Faculty

At the core of this assertion is an admission that STEM faculty—because they are responsible for educating and training future generations of scientists and engineers—are essential to US competitiveness and preeminence. However, the institutional structures intended to support STEM faculty (namely, professional development interventions) often fail to build our individual capacities for cultivating, as opposed to weeding out, talent. They tend to overlook the importance of cultural responsiveness in teaching and learning, underemphasize the value of self-efficacy, or wholly disregard the inescapable influence of our unique personality traits and characteristics—as if all faculty are alike. In sum, the professional development of STEM faculty has been unduly universalized in many ways, to the point that its results are now simply additive rather than synergistic.

Therefore, instead of continuing to rely on hit-or-miss approaches to STEM faculty development, we must now customize our efforts so that they are based on a deeper, more holistic understanding of our true selves and of the influences—historical, sociopolitical, and cultural—that inform our individual commitments to STEM higher education reform. While these influences are as distinct as the individual narratives and institutional contexts from which they originate, they collectively represent the source from which change within STEM higher education must emanate. To adapt the words of Mahatma Gandhi ([1913] 1999, 241):

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the [academy] would also change. As a man [or woman] changes his [or her] own nature, so does the [academy] change towards him [or her].... We need not wait to see what others do.

Change Ourselves, Change STEM

In his most recent book, John Maxwell (2014) proclaims that good leaders ask great questions. The same can be said of good STEM higher education reformers. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), through its Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), has made important contributions to STEM higher education reform by asking not only what works in undergraduate STEM education, but also for whom does it work well, and under what conditions does it work best. At such a time as this, however—when growing cynicism about STEM threatens to erode our national and global futures—we need more than great questions. In Leading with Soul, Bolman and Deal (2011) remind us that it is not the questions, but knowing where our questions come from that makes the difference.

For some, questions about undergraduate STEM education reform arise from a moral obligation; for others, they represent an institutional mandate. For Project Kaleidoscope of AAC&U, our questions are now driven by an unequivocal commitment to employing our own vulnerabilities, sensitivities, and sensibilities about ourselves, our histories, and our worldviews—as a collective source and force—to create a world-class model of STEM higher education reform that honors our own legacy as STEM academicians and guarantees our future as global citizens. The source of our questions, rather than the questions themselves, compels us to revitalize STEM faculty professional development in ways that demystify the complexities of our humanity and unmask the incongruence between it and the sometimes-volatile work environments in which we must educate and train our students.

The Source of Change

Rather than suggest a generalized framework for professional development models and tools, I list below three key principles that shape a structure of reform that is responsive to the contemporary conditions of twenty-first-century STEM faculty life, and is, most of all, sustainable, both within the academy and in our private lives. Each principle is representative of an explicit strategy that reflects our commitment and effort toward reforming undergraduate STEM education at its very core—within our hearts, minds, and souls.

PRINCIPLE #1: Undergraduate STEM reform begins with the reform of us.

Don’t try to fix the students. Fix ourselves first.—Marva Collins

Recognizing that pedagogical reform is a necessary, but insufficient, approach to total reform of undergraduate STEM education, AAC&U’s Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM (TIDES) initiative pairs pedagogical reform with a three-year-long professional development program for STEM faculty (Mack and Winter 2015). This initiative represents a strong pivot toward making equity and justice essential to immediate and widespread change in undergraduate teaching, and begins with a deep exploration of self. TIDES faculty engage in unpacking the root causes of their own underlying personal biases and the systemic injustices that negatively affect AALANA students at their institutions. They also participate in thorough review of critical theories (e.g., critical race theory, critical gender theory), hands-on diversity training, and mindfulness practice.

Collectively, TIDES has contributed to the retention and persistence of over two hundred thousand STEM undergraduates to date, more than 50 percent of whom are from AALANA and other historically marginalized groups. More importantly, though, for the TIDES community of STEM faculty, mastery of TIDES program components has irreversibly changed undergraduate STEM teaching practices, deeply enhanced leadership and decision-making capacities, and permanently altered personal worldviews.

PRINCIPLE #2: We are all responsible for leading undergraduate STEM reform.

Growing other leaders from the ranks isn’t just the duty of the leader, it’s an obligation.—Warren Bennis

Since its founding in 1989, PKAL has been one of the leading organizations in the United States focused on transforming undergraduate STEM education through the professional development of STEM faculty. Its STEM Leadership Institute—designed to provide early- and mid-career STEM faculty with the knowledge, practice, and skill required to effectively negotiate the politics of institutional change (Elrod and Kezar 2014)—is undergirded by a uniquely designed curriculum that emphasizes experiential learning. However, recent racially motivated uprisings on many of our nation’s campuses now threaten to undermine the progress we have made, and could make in years to come, toward diversifying the STEM disciplines.

To ensure that our progress remains steady, PKAL has designed and launched My Tenure Trek™ (MTT), a diversity simulation grounded in experiential learning theory, which guides participants through a simulated tenure process that is simultaneously representative of the culture of STEM and the lived experiences of diverse faculty. Offered exclusively through the PKAL STEM Leadership Institute, the simulation requires participants to assume the identity of someone markedly different from themselves. Unlike most diversity training programs, MTT™ purposefully provokes the onset of physiological and emotional reactions to situations commonly encountered on the journey toward tenure, in order to awaken and sensitize participants to the influences of power and privilege, the impacts of microaggressions and implicit biases, and the dangers of ignoring any or all of these.

PRINCIPLE #3: We must recognize greatness everywhere greatness exists.

The true task of leadership is not to put greatness into [anything], but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.—John Buchan

To date, few research studies have explored the impact of leadership on broadening participation in STEM. Of those that do exist, almost none focus on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), institutions that have led the nation for over five decades in broadening the participation of African Americans in STEM. The Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership (CASL)—founded by the University of the Virgin Islands, Fielding Graduate University, North Carolina A&T State University, and AAC&U with generous funding from the National Science Foundation’s HBCU Undergraduate Program—aims to redress this omission.

CASL strategically utilizes the cultural authority of HBCUs themselves to shape the perspective through which this distinctive institutional context is rigorously examined, explained, and integrated into mainstream discourse on STEM higher education reform. Through a yearlong professional development program for STEM faculty, CASL exposes undergraduate STEM reform leaders to theories of leadership and organizational change as well as historical and contemporary truths about the leadership legacies associated with HBCU STEM successes. Most importantly, CASL guides these leaders in the practice of self-examination as a tool for engaging in the kind of purpose-driven, liberatory leadership that broadens the participation of African Americans in STEM.


Successful STEM higher education reform will clearly require far more than can be expressed in three principles. What will remain important, though, is that our work continue to reflect a greater awareness, a deeper appreciation for our humanity, and a stronger commitment to acknowledging, honoring, and sharing with others the privilege that we enjoy as STEM faculty. We’ve only just begun.


The author acknowledges Claudia Rankins, program officer in the National Science Foundation’s Education and Human Resources Directorate, Division of Human Resource Development, for her statistical analysis of data referenced in this article.


Bolman, Lee, and Terrence Deal. 2011. Leading with Soul: An Uncommon Journey of Spirit, Vol. 381. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Elrod, Susan, and Adrianna Kezar. 2014. “Developing Leadership in STEM Fields: The PKAL Summer Leadership Institute.” Journal of Leadership Studies 8(1): 33–39.

Gandhi, Mahatma. (1913) 1999. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), Vol. 13. New Delhi: Publications Division Government of India. http://gandhiserve.org/cwmg/VOL013.PDF.

Mack, Kelly M., and Kate Winter. 2015. “Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM: Professional Development for Self-Efficacy.” In Transforming Institutions: Undergraduate STEM Education for the 21st Century, edited by Gabriela C. Weaver, Wilella D. Burgess, Amy L. Childress, and Linda Slakely, 338–52. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Maxwell, John C. 2014. Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership. New York: Center Street.

National Science Foundation (NSF), Division of Science Resources Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015 (NSF 17-310). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation. https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/.

Ryan, Camille L., and Kurt Bauman. 2016. Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015 (US Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P20-578). Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Kelly Mack is Vice President for Undergraduate STEM Education and Executive Director of Project Kaleidoscope at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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