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Effectiveness of Computing in Modern Biology Workshops for Broadening Participation in STEM

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August 25, 2020

Effectiveness of Computing in Modern Biology Workshops for Broadening Participation in STEM

For decades, federal and local efforts have tried to improve participation and retention of women and underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research was created, in part, to address this issue in selected geographies, including Oklahoma. Despite small gains in numbers of scientists from underrepresented groups, this progress has been outpaced by the overall growth in STEM fields such that the STEM workforce does not reflect the diversity of the United States.

The Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnerships on the OU Norman campus recently funded eleven short-term projects that position OU faculty and their collaborators to effectively compete for significant external funding opportunities related to the impact of social inequities on knowledge creation and dissemination. Jeff Kelly, a professor in the OU Department of Biology, and Ed Higgins, a biology doctoral candidate and a member of the OU student-led STEM Inclusion Council, lead one of these projects.

“Research shows that while approximately 50% of biologists are female, the share of women in computer sciences declined to 27% in the last 20 years,” Kelly said. “Additionally, Black, Latino, American Indian, and Native Pacific Islander students are dramatically underrepresented in university computer science departments, making up just 17% of computer science majors. In ecology and evolutionary biology, participation of underrepresented minorities in Ph.D. programs is particularly low, even compared to other STEM fields. However, research has also shown that providing educational opportunities in computing is an effective way to address inequality in STEM.”

Their research project, “Effectiveness of Computing in Modern Biology Workshops for Broadening Participation in STEM.” is comprised of team from the OU Department of Biology and the Miami University of Ohio. The team conducted a free, five-day online workshop consisting of four, two-day classes focused on modern computer skills essential in a wide variety of biological sciences. 



“Because a lack of resources and impostor syndrome disproportionately affects students with marginalized identities, our goal is to provide local high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, interested in a career in biology, with the tools and resources that we wish we had received earlier in both personal and career matters,” Higgins said. “Our workshop offered 14 courses instructed by faculty and graduate students at OU and Miami University, had daily seminar speakers on topics from Women in STEM to Impostor Syndrome, and concluded with a Biology Career Mixer so students could talk with industry professionals from biotech, policy, forestry, and more. We want to create a community of scientists and students so STEM feels more welcoming to students from any background.” 

Upon completing the four main classes, students will have gained experience in how to import and manipulate tabular and spatial data in R, the most widely used open source statistical program in ecology, as well as a basic understanding of the Python language, which is used for widely by STEM professionals, and exposure to major computational topics within biology, including genetic and geographical analyses.

The students that completed their courses received a certificate verifying their participation and new skills. The researchers hope to expand the workshop to include more students from Oklahoma.

“The logistical experience provided by this pilot workshop will provide critical background training for hosting yearly workshops at OU,” Kelly said. “We will be able to establish relationships with high schools and community colleges that serve the underrepresented communities that are vital to a build a diverse, productive workforce. These relationships will facilitate and encourage increased participation of Oklahoma students in the future. Furthermore, by gathering data on which aspects of the workshop students find valuable and which are successful for promoting student retention, we can be more effective in providing computing skills that bridge gaps in diversity in STEM.”