NSF Summit Pushes STEM Out of its Box to Embrace Art, Inclusion, Early Exposure as a Community Change Agent

NSF Summit Attendees

Urban-core teachers, non-profit directors, Ph.D researchers, graduate students mentoring youth, business leaders and others in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) convened at the University of Cincinnati (UC) in early March to tackle the sticky problem of diversity inclusion. They attended the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded NEXTLIVESHERE: Social Change Innovation Summit. Locals were joined by NSF project grantees from around the country facing the same dilemma.

Cincinnati attracted NSF attention as the birthplace of collective impact, when partners from all sectors collectively address complex social issues. Backbone organizations form to support, monitor and measure the change on local, regional and national levels. NEXTLIVESHERE embraced NSF’s charge to increase minority representation in STEM, borrowing design-thinking from the arts to spend three days clarifying, defining and creating actions.

            “Typical conferences talk at people expecting them to go home and make things happen,” according to organizer Dr. Kathie Maynard, an assistant dean at UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services. “Making real change is not for wimps and the work is hard. The conference allowed a cross sector group to engage in the real-life work of making things happen for our kids and our community.”

Locals-who-work-globally Ramsey Ford of Design Impact and Mike Fleisch of depict and the ValueWeb launched the event with a model shop. Participants built the current STEM system, represented as a leaky pipeline leaving minorities out, a box with too many entry barriers and isolated silos of knowledge. Collective-impact pundits led fire-starter conversations on creating the right culture, relabeling STEM as problem solving, finding the “secret sauce” for minority success, connecting STEM grads to employers and working with a common vision.

Firestarter Paul Schmitz, senior advisor to the Collective Impact Forum and an author, challenged the group “to be confident in our fullness and have humility about our emptiness. We must see community members for assets and fullness, not emptiness. That changes our work and how we work with each other.” He called out a social-justice thread embedded in the conference.

NSF Summit Attendees

Smaller groups advocated for supporting basic needs and engaging the community on its terms. “From root to fruit, we (should) look at the root cause and conditions, making sure kids are fed and have shelter so they can learn, starting from birth.” said Jennifer Williams, a community-change evaluator and counselor.

When delving deeper, participants collectively agreed that moving STEM forward requires a broader focus on softer skills and problem solving instead of traditional steep knowledge in specific fields. Megan Lamkin , UC interim director of graduate biology research, commented: “STEM is more about skills than content. Not once did we talk about math or physics. We did talk about transferability and adaptability of skills.”

“Children come into the world STEM ready: bright, curious and asking why questions. To a large extent, it’s our job to remove barrier and give them lift,” said Melisse May, part of Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative leadership. She echoed what many others articulated: STEM should be nurtured before kindergarten.

NSF Summit Attendees

One of the quietest voices ended the summit by admitting her reluctance to attend. “Where do I fit in as a retired postal worker who graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in biology?” asked Velda Miller of Rising Sun, IN, representing the Community Garden Action Team and the Alliance for Braille Literacy.

“It was a hard time to get a job,” according to Miller, “but biology and science have always been my passion. Not until this morning did I see where or how I am connected. As a volunteer, I have inadvertently been relaying information about STEM to parents, teachers and in the classroom.” She privately shared that, while directing a nature hunt years ago, she fulfilled a second-graders’ request to hold a slug, then return it to the shade. Quickly forgotten, Miller later “received the sweetest thank-you note. That’s when the light bulb went off: we all enter the world as inquisitive young scientists.”

Maynard cut her concluding remarks. “When Velda spoke about her insecurities and struggles, she expressed the uncertainty that exists in all of us. Rising above that uncertainty, knowing that to make a difference for all of us, it has to include me – that’s the essence of the community change we seek.”

Next steps include “submitting an NSF Includes Design and Development Launch Pilot proposal of $300,000 over two years to prove we can create impact and inclusion at scale,” Maynard said. UC is one of 100 invited to apply from a pool of 600. “Business innovation knows how to scale, we get to prove that with social innovation. If successful, in two years, we will go for a $12 million NSF award for one of five national alliances to increase diversity and representation in STEM. The summit set the stage; this grant allows us to apply that learning for greater connectedness and impact.”