Grant to help support young women in STEM fields

Engineering students work on an autonomous vehicle.
Engineering students work on an autonomous vehicle.

Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Science recently received significant support in its efforts to support women in STEM through a five-year collaboration funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $999,899.

This project, which is led by Professor Sarah Kirk of Willamette University, is called the Advancing STEM Careers by Empowering Network Development (ASCEND) collaboration and includes six partner institutions and up to 75 participants from colleges and universities across three regions – the northwest, the Midwest and the southeast. Elizabeth Roberts-Kirchhoff, assistant dean of Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Science, serves as a co-director.

The project will focus on two areas. The first will provide individual faculty members with resources and tools to assist in advancing careers. Second, the project hopes to address institutional and systemic barriers that prevent women at the mid-career level from achieving promotions to full professors or in their efforts to obtain positions in academic administration.

“We are excited to begin this work with faculty and administrators at primarily undergraduate institutions across the three regions to support the advancement of women faculty in STEM—especially to the rank of professor–and to drive institutional change in creating more inclusive environments for all faculty,” Roberts-Kirchhoff said.

Kirk, who is the principal investigator (PI) for this grant-funded project, agrees.

“Unfortunately, women in STEM still face significant career inequities,” she explained. “We, the PIs, have personally benefited from a strong network that has both empowered us to advocate for ourselves and to participate in positive change within our own institutions. We look forward to creating strong mentoring opportunities for others while working on larger systemic change.”

The project team will create three regional peer mentoring networks, which will meet monthly online and annually face-to-face. Participants are to receive networking and collaboration opportunities, education, training resources and professional support. Faculty will work with them to identify barriers specific to their professional advancement, such as too few leadership roles or insufficient scholarship productivity, and will develop a strategic plan to address them.

In addition, administrators at participating institutions are expected to evaluate existing policies, practices and take into consideration intersectional impact factors such as race, ethnicity and disability status. Faculty and administrators will work together to strategically design and implement comprehensive campus-specific change plans that reduce barriers encountered by women in STEM fields, create more equitable communities and foster the retention and advancement of a diverse STEM faculty population.

The expectation among project partners is that ASCEND will develop faculty and institutions with the goal of establishing the critical mass necessary to engender multi-institutional transformations by developing women leaders among the faculty. In addition, this project will enable administrators across genders to remove institutional obstacles to the advancement of diverse faculty.

Along with Detroit Mercy’s Roberts-Kirchhoff, Maria Bertagnolli of Gonzaga University, Chrystal Bruce of John Carroll University, Hala Schepmann of Southern Oregon University and Patricia Flatt of Western Oregon University will co-direct the project. Project leadership in the south includes Cheryl Swanier from Claflin University, Victoria Turgeon from Furman University and Mary Katherine Watson from the Citadel. Several other institutions across the three regions will also participate.

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