The Vital Role HBCUs Play in Building a Robust Science and Engineering Enterprise – US Black Engineer


The National Science Foundation (NSF) appointed Karen Marrongelle as Chief Operating Officer in July 2021. Previously, she led the NSF’s Education and Human Resources Branch, which supports research that improves learning and teaching, and broad efforts to achieve excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels and in all settings.

Marrongelle is a leader in the STEM education research community, and her career has been marked by a deep commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. When she was Deputy Director of Education and Human Resources, she focused on understanding the causes of disparities in educational opportunity and setting strategic visions to address these issues. She has led funding for several STEM education research centers focused on broadening participation and initiatives to address equity and inclusion in STEM.

This commentary by Dr. Marrongelle was first published in black american engineer spring 2022 edition of the magazine.

Congress established the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950. Congress did so to recognize the ever-deepening impact of scientific research on the national economy, global leadership, and the well-being of all citizens of the United States.

The NSF is unique among federal agencies because we fund all areas of basic science and engineering research. We take a bottom-up approach to funding research. By this I mean that we are strongly community driven. We set some general parameters but let the research community bring us their best ideas. Then we fund those absolute best ideas.

Today, more than ever, we are witnessing the power of NSF-funded work to have deep and meaningful impacts on our lives and communities. In the past two years alone, we have dramatically emphasized the importance of basic research coupled with use-inspired innovations in STEM fields.

The COVID-19 pandemic has capitalized on some basic research founded decades ago. The CRISPR technology that some may be familiar with has enabled PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing and vaccines, allowing us to rapidly introduce vaccines into the general population and access needed testing.

All of our fundraising work in additive manufacturing and 3D printing has taken on new life in printing essential medical equipment such as face shields and ventilators. Decades of NSF investments have proven essential in providing the means to continue the fight against COVID-19. These are just a few examples among many others that I could cite.

We recognize that these incredible discoveries cannot and do not happen by themselves. They are powered by a talented STEM community discovered across the country who have been provided with opportunities and support to succeed in STEM. And we know there are so many who don’t have access to these opportunities and support. We are concerned about this.

While our research shows that the country’s STEM enterprise continues to grow, we know there is still room for improvement to expand participation for all individuals across the country.

Data from NSF’s National Center for Science statistics shows us that to create a research community and STEM workforce that fully reflects the talent that exists in the American population; we still need to integrate almost four million more people, the “missing millions”, into our STEM community by 2030.

With each passing year, we get much closer to that time. Reaching the Missing Millions has driven NSF’s work over the past year and a half. We continue to ask ourselves some very crucial questions: how can we attract the additional four million people and how do we ensure that we leverage all the talented ideas in our great country?

Many know that the most successful models for increasing the participation of underrepresented and underresourced groups in STEM are our country’s minority-serving institutions and, in particular, our country’s historically black colleges and universities. In fs, seven of the top eight institutions get the most black undergraduate students pursuing doctorates in engineering.

At NSF, we have long recognized and supported the importance of HBCUs. One of our earliest efforts to broaden participation in science was the launch of the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) program in 1972.

Since then, this program has expanded significantly, spurring innovative programs and approaches to improve the quality of STEM education and research at HBCUs and to diversify and impact the STEM workforce. But there is still work to be done.

We challenged ourselves at NSF to think about how we can build on the work we’ve done over the past decades. We asked ourselves what we hadn’t done and where we could do more. To build on and improve efforts quickly and at scale, NSF has created a framework comprised of four key investment areas that will help guide our strategic actions moving forward:

To research. Like all good science, understanding how to expand participation in STEM requires a solid foundation of knowledge. That’s why we’re investing in a variety of curiosity-driven, use-inspired initiatives that will increase our ability to expand access to STEM and shine a light on the barriers that limit participation. NSF’s Extended Membership Research Centers are a way to partner with HBCUs to conduct this essential research. We are learning lessons that HBCUs have shown us for decades.

One of the most successful centers is the Center for Advanced STEM Leadership or CASL. It is a multi-institutional collaboration founded by multiple HBCUs generating knowledge and research intended to equip the next generation of HBCU leaders with new theories, policies, and practices that can more effectively expand STEM participation.

Founded in 2016, CASL has produced numerous peer-reviewed publications. More importantly, it has expanded to include 30 HBCUs and two STEM-related professional societies across the United States. It is a critical way to spread our knowledge of what works, with the specific goals of (a) supporting Black STEM students enrolled in HBCUs and (b) taking lessons learned and applying them to institutions at across the country.

Education: We invest in initiatives that will improve opportunities, build capacity, and increase student participation, retention, and career sustainability in our country’s academic institutions. A notable example of this is North Carolina A&T State University, one of the leading HBCU STEM institutions. They use an NSF Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) award to implement and test approaches that promote the development of research identity for graduate engineering students. By establishing a network of research engineers and forming small research groups of faculty and students with common interests, the project hopes to nurture and validate a sense of belonging to the education and research community. for students from underrepresented minorities.

This is important for several reasons. First, it’s a nice amalgamation of some social science research regarding the importance of identity formation and identity development. Second, it is an innovative application of this work at the graduate level. For example, we might mistakenly think that someone’s identity as a scientist has already been fully formed. This challenges this perception and highlights the need for further work in this area.

Research infrastructure: NSF invests in our nation’s research infrastructure to keep students, teachers, administrators, and researchers safe. Specifically, HBCUs have access to tools and resources to advance their skills and develop greater learning capacity. This is an area where we have been paying close attention to the growth of HBCU IPs which the leaders in infrastructure awards are, and we are so excited about the possibilities ahead. What is important here is that we recognize how important it is to have HBCU’s leadership in these types of important research infrastructure grants.

Awareness raising, sensitization and partnerships: A critical part of our approach is to foster meaningful engagement across our country’s communities, research associations, and the many groups and organizations represented across the various STEM industries. NSF recognizes that no single agency, institution, or organization can create the momentum needed to build a more inclusive science and technology enterprise. We also realize that driving meaningful change requires intense collaboration and intentional strategic actions among all partners.

The NSF resources, funding, and initiatives we use to expand participation serve as seeds to strengthen and diversify the STEM community. That’s the beauty of what NSF funding can do. This can give organizations the leeway to test ideas and not always feel the pressure to succeed. These grants can help fund idea hubs.

Plus, they can show where seeds aren’t working, where they can be improved, and how to think about scaling them up. But to foster real growth and bring about lasting change, however, we must institutionalize efforts that have proven effective and create environments that value inclusivity and diversity.

Our country’s HBCUs play a vital role in this mission, and they are at the forefront of an ever-changing academic and professional landscape. We need HBCUs to tell stories of their successes and share their failures where they are accessible to a wider audience and can have a wider impact. NSF management wants to know what works and what doesn’t. This is the only way to truly amplify the efforts of HBCUs and create exponential impact across the country.

I encourage you, the reader, to seek opportunities and, even better, to create opportunities for yourself, your institutions, and your organizations to interact with NSF awards and programs in new and innovative ways.

Building a more robust and inclusive science and technology enterprise is not easy, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, I have no doubt that we can create the change we need and build a diverse and inclusive national company ready to push the frontiers of discovery and innovation for decades to come.

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