Grant supports effort to attract Native American students to STEM fields

A collaboration aims to break down barriers for students and spark interest in graduate programs in the biological sciences.
January 30, 2023

Nearly a quarter of students studying the biological sciences at the University of Minnesota Morris (UMM) identify as Native American, yet very few go on to pursue graduate studies in biology. A new initiative aims to illuminate the reasons why in hopes of boosting the number of Native American students who pursue graduate degrees and go on to careers in STEM fields.

The UMMand the College of Biological Sciences (CBS) received a planning grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to explore ways to attract more Native American students to graduate programs in the biological sciences and, ultimately, careers in STEM fields. The first step — understanding the barriers.

There are many possible reasons why students may opt out of graduate education and careers in STEM. The first phase of the year-long initiative will focus on gathering as much information from current undergraduates at UMM about how they view STEM careers, the barriers that they have encountered that inhibit them from pursuing graduate education as well as their needs and plans for the future.

Rachel Johnson, Acting Chair of the Division of Science and Mathematics at UMM, is partnering with Associate Dean for Graduate Education Margaret A. Titus and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Laurie Parker from CBS, on the initiative. Karen Diver, the University’s senior advisor to the president for Native American affairs, will advise the team.

"There are several grant-funded initiatives ongoing or soon to be implemented on the Morris campus with the overall goal of increasing a sense of belonging and success for Native American students,” says Johnson. “This collaboration with CBS will add to these efforts. We have a lot of Native American students interested in biology, so this partnership will be timely and have an important impact on a lot of students."

“Students may not know the scope of careers open to them, so one goal is to also introduce them to the breadth of opportunities available to graduates of our programs,” says Titus. To that end, UMM students will spend a week participating in a hands-on research laboratory, exploring career options within STEM and learning  about CBS graduate programs and  as part of the pilot.

Another aim of the program is to ensure that students who do decide to pursue graduate studies at the College of Biological Sciences feel welcome and supported. “That starts with the way the faculty interact with them,” says Titus, who notes that Native American students may bring different ways of thinking about nature and science to the fore. “Once we know what the barriers are, we can bring that to the faculty and make sure they are aware and implement changes in how they interact with students.”

Johnson, Titus and Parker hope the year-long effort will serve as a springboard for greater engagement with Native American students in the biological sciences across the state. By creating more robust pathways, the hope is to draw more students to CBS not only from UMM but from other colleges across the state.  —Stephanie Xenos