A combination of UNM sociologists, a political scientist and a geologist are conducting innovative academic and evaluative research on one of the most successful science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education alliances in the country.

University of New Mexico Professors Roberto Ibarra (Sociology) and Gary Weissmann (Earth and Planetary Sciences) with doctoral student Michael Howland-Davis (Sociology) recently launched A Study of Context Diversity in Research and Teaching in the Western Alliance to Expand Student Opportunities/Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (WAESO/LSAMP) Program at Arizona State University. The study, not only funded, but required by the National Science Foundation (NSF), began on Oct. 1, 2016 and explores the impacts of commonly-found disparities between academic contextual culture and that of the student participants at ASU. This is the first time NSF required all LSAMP programs with more than 20 years of funding to include either a social science or education study in their proposals.

“I think this is a great example of what future social science research is moving toward in terms of interdisciplinary work,” Ibarra said. “We are collaborating with researchers in the hard sciences, and public administration with an incredibly disciplinarily diverse team with a wide ranging, but complimentary set of skills and expertise to study an exceptionally innovative STEM alliance. This is a unique opportunity within NSF research and within the social sciences in general.”

The study will be testing and documenting a relatively new model for understanding diversity that could be used by similar programs nationwide. Total funding for the WAESO program is $5 million. The funding for Ibarra, Weissmann and Howland-Davis' study ($850,000) and a related program evaluation ($350,000), to be led by Regents' Professor Mario Rivera (UNM School of Public Administration) and senior research scientist Rebecca Beals (UNM Institute for Social Research), will bring approximately $1.25 million in grant funds to UNM over five years. 

“This was a complete team effort for all of us involved at UNM and our colleagues at ASU,” Rivera said on Friday.

These co-Principal Investigators will work in tandem to assess reasons for the established success of the WAESO program—which seeks to foster a strong, diverse, and inclusive scientific and technological workforce through efforts at recruiting, retaining, and graduating scientists and engineers from historically and currently underrepresented populations. The study and evaluation projects are coordinated through the UNM Institute for Social Research.

“This is a new way of looking at how we can improve diversity in STEM fields,” Weissmann said on Friday. “Our research teams are examining this from a variety of perspectives, which is frankly, the best way to research the nature of STEM.”

Project activities focus on student research, the establishment of peer networks, faculty and peer mentoring, research on the social context of science, and development of a culture of professionalism among undergraduate students interested in pursuing advanced degrees and academic careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.