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Published March 14, 2022

A new grant will launch a project that aims to break down barriers keeping underrepresented students from pursuing careers in earth sciences.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has made a $250,000 grant to Rutgers to increase the number of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students earning degrees in the geosciences.

The geosciences—which include the study of Earth and its bodies of water, natural resources, atmosphere, and soil and rocks—are the least diverse of all STEM fields, says Ashaki Rouff, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Rutgers University–Newark. Rouff is the primary investigator for the project funded by the Sloan Foundation, which aims to create sustainable pathways to graduate education and careers for underrepresented students in the geosciences at Rutgers–Newark and Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Creating a more diverse geoscience community is crucial to addressing issues—such as climate change, resource management, and pollution—that disproportionately affect communities of color, says Rouff. “These are issues that geoscientists can tackle and work with the local community to address,” she adds.

And as the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, those challenges will grow, she says. “Environmental pollution goes hand in hand with urban growth and population growth, as do water resource challenges,” Rouff says. “These issues affect society’s capacity to grow and persist. But people of color are not in the conversation.”

The perspectives and knowledge of nonwhite populations are vital to solving problems that affect them where they live, Rouff adds. The geosciences too often ignore “the people who have knowledge. Everybody needs to be engaged in scientific discourse to find the appropriate and most effective solutions.”

To bring more people of color into the conversation, Rouff and her co-investigators will use the Sloan Foundation grant to create a two-year initiative that includes two pilot programs. This summer, a “broadening participation” program will provide resources and encouragement for 15 to 20 underrepresented students interested in the geosciences and help them move on to graduate school and careers in the field.

These students will be part of the STAR—Sloan STEM Transformations and Advancing Retention—cohort. The cohort will engage in near-peer mentoring (guidance from students a bit farther along in their studies), career exploration, and workforce development within the context of climate resiliency.

The project’s second pilot program, which will launch in fall 2022, will present antiracism seminars to geoscience faculty members and help them acquire and implement mentoring practices that counteract cultures of racism and exclusion in the discipline.

Rouff says Black, Latinx, and indigenous (BLI) students who show an interest in the geosciences can be encouraged to persist in their studies by demonstrating the relevancy of the discipline to environments that may be more familiar to them.

“The value of the geosciences is not communicated effectively to BLI populations,” she says. “The geosciences are framed as a discipline where you climb on rocks in these pristine mountainous locations. Newark is an urban area, and there are specific applications to the geosciences in Newark, but we don’t frame the discipline in that way. We don’t make it accessible to students from urban areas.”

The perspectives and knowledge of nonwhite populations are vital to solving problems that affect them where they live, Rouff adds. The geosciences too often ignore “the people who have knowledge. Everybody needs to be engaged in scientific discourse to find the appropriate and most effective solutions.”

Collaborating with Rouff on the initiative are Carrie Ferraro, associate director of Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience at Rutgers–New Brunswick, and Luis Rivera, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers–Newark.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation makes grants primarily to support original research and education related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics.

 

 

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