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UIC receives NSF grant to increase number of minorities in PhD STEM programs

MIE professor Carmen Lilley

The University of Illinois Chicago has received a three-year, $497,799 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand the number of underrepresented minority PhD graduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

The grant will help create a new multidisciplinary educational program of self-advocacy at UIC to help students from underrepresented minority groups achieve success in the STEM fields.

The program, which will run from July 1, 2020, until June 20, 2023, aims to prepare students to face what educational researchers call “climates of intimidation” within higher education and STEM, according to the grant proposal.

The foundation’s Innovations in Graduate Education, or IGE, award to UIC was granted to Carmen Lilley, the principal investigator and an associate professor in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering.

In addition, Karen Colley, dean of the UIC Graduate College and professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics, as well as Gregory Larnell, associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the UIC College of Education, are co-principal investigators for the project, called “Increasing Academic Success for Underrepresented Minority Ph.D. Graduate STEM Students Through Self-Advocacy Education.”

“We do not have enough underrepresented minorities in the STEM fields at the graduate level. It’s a very small population and so these students may feel alone or out-of-place, in isolated environments, and they may be the only underrepresented minority in the lab or in the department,” Lilley said.

The aim is to recruit 12 underrepresented minority graduate students from the STEM departments by the end of the spring semester to make up the first cohort of students. By the end of the third year, 36 graduate students would have gone through the program.

To make sure the project is sustainable, Lilley joined with the co-principal investigators from the graduate and education colleges for a multidisciplinary approach.

A main tenant of the program is the incorporation of different elements of self-advocacy, which are based on the findings from the learning disabilities communities. Self-advocacy has been shown to increase academic success, especially during transition periods for students with learning disabilities, because students are encouraged to advocate for themselves by supporting their empowerment, teaching social justice and instilling self-awareness, Lilley said.

“The research hypothesis is that translating the three tenants of self-advocacy to a graduate education program will result in improved academic success, improved social integration and improved health and well-being for underrepresented minority STEM graduate students at UIC,” according to the grant proposal.

Teaming with Graduate College officials also allows the investigators to tap into mentoring programs, which are a major focus of support for students in the college. Within the group, Lilley said, they would like to create a network where participants can serve as mentors to each other and support each other by building a community of graduate student researchers.

In addition, the program aims to also focus on empowering students by combining their professional development with leadership skill training. This would be done partly by holding workshops and having students learn from members of underrepresented minority groups who have succeeded in academia or in the professional world.

Through the College of Education, the grant calls for an expansion of its work using aspects of social justice initiatives to come up with ways to take these elements and educate the students about the historical reasons and biases behind the dearth of minority representation in the STEM fields.

“The goal is to build a community so that students don’t feel isolated and they can feel that they belong to the UIC community and within their STEM professions,” Lilley said. “They shouldn’t feel that the difficulties they encounter are because of who they are or that they need to be inauthentic in order to gain acceptance in their labs or to succeed in their professions.  There are many historical, societal and institutional reasons why things are the way they are, and the goal is to support these students to achieve their academic and professional goals by educating them on self-advocacy.”