UH to Host NSF Workshop Aimed at Inspiring STEM Students to Pursue Academia
April 9, 2015
Melanie Ziems
Rodrigues says students want professors they can relate to - including minorities and women.
Rodrigues says students want professors they can relate to - including minorities and women.

Debora Rodrigues, an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, said many of her female students approach her not just for course help, but for life advice. They ask about things like balancing work and home life, childcare, and prejudices in STEM careers.

“Students wish they had more faculty who are like them, faculty they can relate to,” she said. Part of the problem, according to Rodrigues, is the dwindling number of women and minority faculty members in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

The 2013 National Science Foundation (NSF) report “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering” states that women’s participation in engineering and computer sciences remains below 30 percent, and since 2000, underrepresented minorities’ shares in engineering and the physical sciences have been flat while participation in mathematics has dropped. “Despite the attention given to the STEM disciplines over the last several years, the number of minorities and females pursuing STEM careers are still far from ideal,” Rodrigues said.

But instead of bemoaning the lack of representation in her field, Rodrigues teamed up with researchers from the University of Ohio and Mississippi State University to fix the problem. Together with the NSF, they’re putting on a series of workshops meant to encourage women and minorities to pursue research and careers in academia.

The workshop, “Career Development: From Senior Undergraduates to Navigating Assistant Professorship,” already took place in Ohio and Mississippi and will come to the University of Houston from June 4-5. It will be open to STEM students from the undergraduate level all the way through recently hired junior STEM faculty looking for career advice, mentoring and networking opportunities.

“As a professor, you see so many kids with a lot of potential who end their education after [earning] their bachelor’s [degree]. It’s not that that’s a bad thing – it’s ok to stop at undergrad. But some of them have the potential to go further and they don’t, simply because they don’t think they can, or they don’t understand how it works,” Rodrigues said. She hopes the workshop will reach students at all the university levels and encourage them to keep pushing their research and academic pursuits. The workshop also aims to create a community of underrepresented groups that can support each other.

“I want them to think academia can be a possibility, can be a career path. That’s the thought I want them to leave with,” she said.

The workshop topics will span subjects like assistant professorship careers, time management, applying for grants and NSF CAREER awards, college-level STEM teaching and culturally responsive STEM teaching. It will also include specific information for undergraduates looking at graduate school as well as a roundtable discussion for the entire group.

For Rodrigues, the push for more talent in academia is just as important as in industry. “There are so many good people in engineering going to industry – much more than academia. It’s sad because we need good professors, we need people with good research backgrounds, and I see all this great talent going away,” she said. “And who wouldn’t like to have their student as a colleague? I would feel so proud of one of my students becoming a faculty member.”

The workshop will be held at UH on June 4 and 5. Females and unrepresentative minorities at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels as well as assistant professors in STEM areas are strongly encouraged to attend. The workshop is free and continental breakfast and lunch will be provided. For more information and to register for the workshop, please click here.

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