Collaborative UT project studies equity, opportunities for Black STEM undergraduates

Vivien Ayers, General News Reporter

UT, along with five other American institutions, received an $8.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study racial inequity in STEM and to propose adjustments to educational structures in these fields to match the needs of Black undergraduates.

The study, called “Examining Blackness in Postsecondary STEM Education through a Multidimensional-Multiplicative Lens,” is a five-year plan running from September 2022 to August 2027. The first stage of the plan, now under development, is slated to start at the beginning of 2023. 

This research will gather the struggles Black science, technology, engineering and math students face at each institution and the background information of Black undergraduate students through a “mosaic ethnography,” which will be analyzed to find solutions that can be implemented in schools’ educational policies. At UT, Tia Madkins, an assistant professor in STEM education, and Yasmiyn Irizarry, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, lead the study. 

“We have a chance to capture (their experiences) … because it takes a huge project to capture (this) kind of diversity … (since), except in historically Black colleges and universities, the number of Black students in STEM at most universities is extremely low,” Irizarry said. “One of the things that our study will produce is immense amounts of data that allow for more specificity in identifying how students experience, collectively and uniquely, college as Black undergraduates in STEM.”

The study explores the correlation between racial equity and STEM opportunities for Black students, Irizarry said. There’s racial inequity in the access to advanced classes in high school that impacts college preparation and she said the adjustment of learning structures in educational agencies would possibly help produce equal opportunities and engagement for Black students. 

“(We’re not) thinking about deficit views and about the kind of traditional narratives that you might hear about Black students,” Madkins said. “We’re hoping to really look at what the strengths (are) of these students and what are new ways that people can understand what it means to be Black in STEM.”

The Racial Equity in STEM Education program funds the project and works on “advancing racial equity in STEM education and workforce development that are led or co-developed by individuals and communities most impacted by the inequities caused by systemic racism,” according to the National Science Foundation. 

According to UT, 41,309 students enrolled as undergraduates in the fall 2022 semester. Out of those undergraduates, 810 of them are Black students enrolled in STEM majors, which makes up only 1.96% of the undergraduate student body. 

Currently, UT offers some opportunities to promote the success of Black students in STEM fields, such as the Leadership Through Engagement For the Advancement of Diverse Educational Research program in the School of Pharmacy and the Equal Opportunity in Engineering Program in the Cockrell School of Engineering. Additionally, some STEM freshmen, such as biochemistry freshman Taizon Walker, are chosen for the TIP scholars program, which provides them with additional sources and instruction for their academic success.

“I feel like having (these programs) to help Black people understand what grad school and research is available and what (those opportunities) would look like in comparison to someone of another race (is beneficial),” Walker said.