Auburn University has been awarded $10 million from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to lead a national research effort to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education among students with disabilities.
The grant will support a five-year program that will grow as it progresses, says Overtoun Jenda, assistant provost for special projects and initiatives at Auburn, whose office will be administering the initiative.
“We are starting out as a 27-institution alliance,” said Jenda, a professor of mathematics in the College of Sciences and Mathematics. “The award was made official on Aug. 1, and the first 90 days involves the development of a strategic plan that will guide the alliance.”
The funding will be used to conduct research related to enhancing workforce development opportunities for persons with disabilities. The collaborative research effort is a national project aimed at increasing the number of disabled students entering college and completing a degree in a STEM-related field of study.
“This major award from the National Science Foundation will allow Auburn and collaborating institutions to foster a more diverse workforce while improving educational opportunities for students with disabilities,” said James Weyhenmeyer, Auburn’s vice president for research and economic development.
Students will also receive benefits such as peer and faculty mentoring, research opportunities and financial support. The program has three primary goals: 1) increasing the quantity of students with disabilities completing associate, undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM; 2) facilitating the transitions of students with disabilities from STEM degree completion into the STEM workforce; and 3) enhancing communication and collaboration among institutions of higher education, industry, government, national labs and local communities in addressing the education needs of students with disabilities in STEM disciplines.
“Persons with disabilities are one of the most significantly underrepresented groups in STEM education and employment,” Jenda said. “And they comprise a disproportionately smaller percentage of STEM degrees and jobs compared to their percentages in the U.S. population.
“This alliance is designed to help shrink that gap. Students will participate through stipends, internships conferences and mentoring.”
Auburn is leading this initiative that is subdivided into six regional hubs, according to Jenda.
“Auburn is overseeing the complete alliance, while at the same time leading the Southeastern Hub,” Jenda said.
Other hub-leading institutions include Northern Arizona University (Mountain Hub), The Ohio State University (Northeastern Hub), the University of Hawaii-Manoa (Islands Hub), the University of Missouri-Kansas City (Midwest Hub) and the University of Washington (West Coast Hub). Auburn is working closely with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which functions as the backbone organization for the alliance to support communication, engagement, networked systems, data collection and analyses, sustainability, scaling and dissemination.
Jenda will be assisted in the program administration by others at Auburn, including David Shannon with the College of Education, Daniela Marghitu with the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering – a member of the NSF’s Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, or CEOSE – Brittany McCullough with the Office of Special Projects and Initiatives and Carl Pettis, provost at Alabama State University, also one of the participating institutions.
The award is part of the NSF INCLUDES initiative, one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, which invests in programs that address diversity, inclusion and participation challenges in STEM at a national scale. The Auburn-led alliance is one of only five INCLUDES awards given by NSF this year.
“Creating pathways to success for a STEM workforce reflective of the U.S. population is of national importance to ensuring America’s competitiveness in a global research landscape,” said Sylvia Butterfield, acting assistant director for NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate. “NSF INCLUDES Alliances provide a structure to address this issue and for the STEM enterprise to work collaboratively to achieve inclusive change.”
Jenda, an Auburn professor since 1988, was part of a group of a dozen university professors to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2020. That award also is administered by NSF and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and recognizes excellence in mentoring among college and university professors.