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HBCUs Begin Largest-Ever Effort to Codify Their Success

The largest study of historically Black colleges and universities’ successful methods of teaching and retaining STEM students is underway, with the aim of sharing HBCUs’ best practices and expanding STEM job opportunities for underserved students.
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Morehouse College in Atlanta recently announced that it had received a $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create the HBCU Undergraduate Success Research Center, called STEM-US.

Researchers from Morehouse will collaborate with colleagues from HBCUs Spelman College in Atlanta and Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia, on the project. The money will be used to understand, replicate, and expand upon the country’s 107 HBCUs’ success in graduating African American students in STEM disciplines.

For more than 150 years, HBCUs have demonstrated their expertise, producing 27% of African American students with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. HBCUs account for 21 of the top 50 institutions that educate African Americans who earn doctorates in STEM fields, according to the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

Students, faculty, and administrators at 50 HBCUs — the most ever in a single study — will participate in the Center. They’ll create a database to track STEM students’ graduation with the aim to share best practices in guiding students majoring in STEM disciplines from underrepresented backgrounds through graduation.

Though only 8.5% of Black undergraduate students attend HBCUs, the historically Black colleges and universities award about 18% of Black STEM bachelor’s degrees.

“African Americans have been underrepresented historically in STEM fields, and if we do not broaden the participation, the United States will find itself in a scenario in the near future where we won’t have enough trained STEM people to keep up in technology and innovation.”   

– Lycurgus L. Muldrow, Ph.D., director of sponsored research and integrative activities at Morehouse College’s Division of Science and Mathematics

Overcoming negative messaging

The STEM-US center is the third that the NSF has funded in the past four years, with the goal of enabling HBCUs to have their own voices and to use their own researchers, said NSF Program Director Claudia Rankins, Ph.D., who manages the HBCU program.

“My excitement is that we have three such centers at HBCUs that collaborate with other HBCUs and non-HBCUs,” Dr. Rankins said. “These centers are by HBCUs, for HBCUs.”

The centers focus on research, education, outreach, and knowledge transfer. 

The other two are:

• Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership, or CASL, founded by the University of the Virgin Islands, Fielding Graduate University, North Carolina A&T State University, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

• Broadening Participation Research Center for the Development of Identity and Motivation of African American Students in STEM. It’s rooted in research labs at Morehouse College, Winston-Salem State University, Coppin State University, and Howard University.

Dr. Rankins said another one or two centers could be funded at HBCUs in the next three to five years.

The initiative is especially important at a historic time in the country’s Black Lives Matter movement. 

“African Americans have been underrepresented historically in STEM fields, and if we do not broaden the participation, the United States will find itself in a scenario in the near future where we won’t have enough trained STEM people to keep up in technology and innovation,” said Lycurgus L. Muldrow, Ph.D., director of sponsored research and integrative activities at Morehouse College’s Division of Science and Mathematics. 

Lycurgus L. Muldrow, Ph.D.
Lycurgus L. Muldrow, Ph.D., director of sponsored
research and integrative activities at Morehouse
College’s Division of Science and Mathematics | COURTESY OF MOREHOUSE COLLEGE

The interdisciplinary team of scholars, including Dr. Muldrow, will work on six initiatives, all converging around a theory called the Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST). The theory was created by Margaret Beale Spencer, Ph.D., a psychologist whose work centers on the effects of race, gender, and ethnicity on youth and adolescent development. She now is the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education in the department of comparative human development at The University of Chicago.

PVEST gets to the heart of what HBCU scholars have long realized — but never codified — about negative messages students receive about their identities, Dr. Muldrow said.

Those negative messages sometimes come from other African Americans who internalize assumptions about their own beauty and capabilities, he said. “That’s because of the racist culture we’ve come through,” Dr. Muldrow said. “The culture that has been inflicted through slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, which we’re still coming out of.”

A curriculum that Dr. Muldrow developed and implemented at Morehouse and in a high school in a high-poverty South Georgia district outside of Atlanta provides the framework for a remedy. He calls it the “utilitarian scientific literacy curriculum.” It’s based on a “growth mindset” concept that Dr. Muldrow says is critically important in ensuring that STEM students stick with the coursework and graduate. 

Morehouse has earned kudos as the country’s top producer of Black men who earn STEM-field doctorates.

Overcoming systemic lack of resources

Dr. Muldrow’s curriculum stems from his own experiences growing up in segregated Elizabeth City, North Carolina, who overcame acute sensitivity to cold and nightly sore throats and two tonsil surgeries to become an award-winning high-school football lineman playing both offense and defense.

Though Dr. Muldrow’s parents were professors and helped with his education, he had missed so much school, starting in first grade, he ended up graduating from high school at a seventh-grade reading level. “I was in and out of the hospital, and I couldn’t handle cold (temperatures), so I missed over half of the first-grade school year,” he said. “I never caught up academically.”

Dr. Muldrow discovered his power when he went out for football in the ninth grade and succeeded through, as he calls it, “dedicated work at exercising,” because, “I was really no good at football.” He explained that, “I made my achievements because I worked out so hard. With hard work, I realized that you can do anything you want to do. You can accomplish.”

He not only earned regional honors as an athlete; he also was graduated from North Carolina Central University, an HBCU in Durham, North Carolina, with a bachelor’s degree in biology. And he earned a Ford Foundation scholarship that enabled him to earn his Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. For the past 14 years, Dr. Muldrow has focused on STEM education research.

Cheryl P. Talley, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Virginia State University, experienced her own systemic lack of resources and preparation when she spent three years at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, with little support or encouragement.

Dr. Talley aimed to become a medical doctor, but she couldn’t complete a chemistry class in high school in her native Kansas City, Missouri. That’s because school officials canceled the class halfway through the year when a student lost an eye following a botched experiment. A gym teacher had served as the teacher. 

She married and had four children before returning to college at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she earned her bachelor’s in physiological psychology. 

Dr. Talley earned her master’s and Ph.D. in psychobiology from the University of Virginia, which required that she drive one hour each way across the Blue Ridge Mountains to Charlottesville, Virginia, while her own children went to school. She started teaching at an HBCU nine years ago, following a 15-year tenure as a professor at her alma mater, James Madison. There, she “flipped” her classroom to inspire underprepared students to become motivated beyond the need to pass tests.

She and her colleagues at Virginia State have won several NSF grants for work that examines how peer-to-peer mentors can change the students’ attitudes and determination, alongside other beliefs and behaviors.

Dr. Talley uses cognitive strategies such as mindfulness training to help students develop productive ways of handling college pressures. She said she’s learned that students trained in high-stakes testing environments think of failure as something to avoid. Their negative emotions influence their academic choices — and that’s one reason some strong students who initially plan to major in STEM end up choosing non-STEM disciplines, where they can feel more successful.

She will direct the analytic hub of STEM-US and leverage the PVEST theory to figure out why HBCU methodologies keep Black students in STEM, how those successful strategies can be expanded, and how can they be replicated, including in K-12 grades.

We are one community

What’s obvious is that HBCU professors go beyond in-class responsibilities to provide nurturing environments built on a “we are one community” premise. Dr. Talley said she saw professors exemplify the concept by starting food banks and helping students with personal issues. 

“We need to bring that caring into the classroom,” she said. “Most college faculty are taught to teach content to students and not to help students learn content. There is a big difference, and to understand how to help students learn, we need translational research.”

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated the situation.

“How do we translate through the screen love and caring?” Dr. Talley said. 

The data from 25 HBCUs will be put in a repository — a historic collaboration in collecting information on successful Black students in STEM studies — with the aim of sharing the results widely.

Another project, led by Danielle Dickens, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Spelman College, will focus on the intersectional identities of STEM students at HBCUs — the extent to which a Black woman student’s race, gender, and scientific identity affect her experiences, for example.

Dr. Dickens also will lead social science research seminars and train faculty members from other HBCUs to analyze their own STEM programs through a holistic social science lens, with the goal that scholars publish their findings. 

The other lead researchers are Lawrence Blumer, Ph.D., a biology professor at Morehouse, and Kinnis Gosha, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of computer science and director of the Culturally Relevant Computer Lab at Morehouse.

Dr. Blumer will lead the Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) project, which involves inquiry-based investigation and course-based undergraduate research.

Dr. Gosha will lead the Understanding the Black Computer Science Ecosystem for HBCU Students research. 

Sinead N. Younge, Ph.D., an educational researcher in psychology, will work with Dr. Blumer in investigating the Role of Student Autonomy in the Efficacy of Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CURE).

By the end of the grant’s three-year run, the best practices will be disseminated to educational conferences, serve as an information clearinghouse for colleges and universities nationwide, promote new technologies and innovations, and ultimately serve as guidelines for K-12 educators. The grant follows Morehouse’s winning an initial $1.2 million pilot NSF grant to start the research.