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Earth, From Diverse Perspectives

Research Team Develops Programs to Bring Change to One of STEM’s Most Homogeneous Fields

By Aadit Tambe M. Jour ’22

Illustration of scientists researching the globe

Illustration by Shutterstock

Although the geosciences deal with environmental questions that deeply impact communities of color around the world, it is one of the least diverse STEM fields—a situation UMD researchers are trying to improve.

Ebony Terrell Shockley was the only woman of color in her science classes until she was a high school senior. Even now, when the executive director of teacher education and clinical professor at UMD’s College of Education attends STEM education research conferences, she’s one of the very few non-white women, not only speaking on panels, but simply attending.

Her experience isn’t unusual, as relatively few women of color are entering the STEM career pipeline. As recently as 2018, women of color earned only 14.1% of bachelor’s degrees across STEM fields in the U.S.

One of the fields hardest hit by a lack of diversity is the geosciences, the study of the Earth, its ecosystems and natural resources, and the impact of human behavior on the environment. Women of color constitute less than 5% of all geoscience degree-holders, while making up 18% of the U.S. population.

A UMD research team is trying to change that after receiving a $384,413 grant from the National Science Foundation to provide female students and students from underrepresented backgrounds additional education resources, professional development and mentorship opportunities.

Diversifying geoscience plays a crucial role in how we look at environmental justice, said Candice Duncan, a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology. Whether in areas of the United States hard-hit by pollution or in coastal flooding zones worldwide, the worst outcomes of climate change and other problems geoscientists grapple with disproportionately impact people of color and marginalized populations. 

“It's kind of hard to exclude a group of people, where the majority of the research is affecting them,” she said. “If you want to include all people who can contribute to the science field for the future of our country and for the planet, then you cannot exclude any group for any reason.”

Duncan, Terrell Shockley and Akua Asa-Awuku, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, established the PEARLS (Provide Educational Access to Research & Learning in geoscienceS) project, which will include a College of Agriculture and Natural Resources seminar course this spring called “Introduction to Geosciences.” The course, targeting female and minority students, will not only acquaint students with the field, but also create pathways into it for students. 

The funding will also help create a program for students with undergraduate degrees to seek graduate certification, culminating in them networking with professionals to learn how to practically apply their education in the workplace.

The goal, Asa-Awuku said, is to diversify the workforce. Geoscientists provide the research that policymakers use to draft legislation and set regulations, so it is important for women and people of color to share their perspectives in order to ensure equity and justice in environmental policy. 

“Having the perspective as a person of color, as a (member of an) underserved community, you’re not parachuting into these communities, but you’re engaging as one of the citizens,” she said. “And that’s a perspective that’s much needed.”

People generally hear about jobs and professional development opportunities through their social networks—such as friends, professors, colleagues, and mentors—which tend to be homogeneous, Terrell Shockley said. Especially in STEM-related fields, the networks too often leave out people of color and women. 

“Normalizing—through this kind of project—the idea of STEM for underrepresented groups will then remind and inform folks that yes, this is a route for all of us and not just some of us,” she said. “Providing an opportunity for young children and college students to engage with more people of color in their classrooms, and particularly in STEM will help change the narrative.”

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