Diversity Plan

To Feed, To Fix: Diversity and the Astronomy Pipeline at the University of Washington

prepared by Marcel Agüeros, Kevin Covey, and Andrew West

I. Introduction

The pipeline

Recently, there has been increasing interest in addressing the under-representation of minorities in science. This is commonly called the order of magnitude problem: the percentage of science PhDs awarded to minorities is far smaller than the percentage of those minorities in the general population. Yet research has consistently shown the benefits of a workplace that reflects the diversity of the broader community, a fact at the heart of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling supporting affirmative action programs.[1]

In our field, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) has sought to address the order of magnitude problem through the creation of two standing committees: the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), and the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA). These committees focus on removing barriers preventing participation in astronomy, and communicate their ideas and initiatives through sessions during each AAS meeting, as well as in dedicated workshops. Among the results of the work of these committees are CSWA’s decade-old “Baltimore Charter for Women in Astronomy” and the recent CSMA white paper, “Enhancing Diversity in Astronomy”.

These committees often frame discussions using the pipeline model. Students interested in astronomy are carried from one level of participation to more advanced levels via a pipeline built by educational institutions, individual mentors, internships, and other opportunities to gain experience and knowledge. An important feature of the pipeline model is that problems at one level of the pipeline reduce the flow to all subsequent levels. Thus, each segment of the pipeline must address two separate issues: recruitment, in which promising scientists in the previous segment of the pipeline are identified and assisted through the sometimes difficult transition upwards, and retention, in which attempts are made to ensure that no obstacles at the current level are impeding the progress of good scientists.

Unfortunately, it seems that for minority and women astronomers, feeding the pipeline remains a serious challenge and that even once these astronomers have entered the pipeline, leaks prevent them from reaching its end.[2]

Astronomy and diversity at the University of Washington

This document seeks to define how our department can participate in both feeding and fixing the astronomy pipeline. Our goals are twofold. We wish to increase the effectiveness of our outreach at the K-12 level, and in particular to influence students who may never have considered a career in astronomy. We also wish to identify the resources required to recruit and retain talented women and minority astronomy students at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

We begin by focusing on initiatives to produce and support high school graduates with an interest in science (Section II). We continue by describing some of the efforts made at the undergraduate level to keep students on the path to a degree, and identify ways to bring more students into astronomy (Section III). And we finish with programs and resources to support graduate students as they move toward their PhDs (Section IV). A directory of contacts from some of the programs and institutions discussed in the text is included after the Conclusion (Section V).

II. K-12

In this section we identify outreach programs the department can most easily access at the K-12 level. Making lasting contacts with these programs is vital for increasing the diversity of our department. Our efforts may also help us secure funding from agencies interested in impacting diversity in science.

Most students will not enter the sciences at the undergraduate level if they have not had a strong K-12 science preparation. The combination of poor instruction and a lack of inspiring role models can easily turn students away from science, or even from college education entirely. For underrepresented groups, these factors can amplify the barriers blocking an already unsteady journey to higher education.

Since our ultimate goal is to expand the diversity of graduate students and faculty in the astronomy department, focusing on education at the K-12 level may bestow the fewest immediate benefits. However, K-12 students are in fact the ones on whom we can have the most lasting impact. By working with established programs that target underrepresented students, we can inspire children, encourage them to go to college, and perhaps excite them enough to become scientists. This will further our quest for a diverse department in two concrete ways:

  1. We will reach a pool of students who will attend the UW as undergraduates. We will establish long-term relationships with these students and create a level of trust that will lead to a more diverse undergraduate astronomy population.
  2. We will increase our visibility as a department with a strong commitment to diversity and will make ties with minority-serving organizations within the university and the community.

It is this latter point that will create the most lasting effect on our department. Our ability to recruit a diverse pool of graduate students and faculty will be strengthened if we demonstrate that we can successfully increase the diversity of astronomy at all levels of education.

In the past, members of our department have been unaware of programs for underrepresented students. The recent involvement of some of our graduate students in such programs has created an awareness of the variety of programs that already exist. We outline several established programs run from the University of Washington that can be accessed easily by members of our department.

On-campus programs

These programs mostly focus on activities on the UW’s campus.

Upward Bound

Upward Bound (UB) is a federally funded program serving high school students who are minorities or who will be low income and first generation college students. The main goal of this program is to prepare these students for college by giving them some of the skills needed to succeed as undergraduates as well as the encouragement and guidance that they may not be receiving at school or at home.

Although Upward Bound is a year-round program whose staff members are present weekly at three local high schools (Nathan Hale, Franklin, and Cleveland), the main thrust of the program is a six-week mock college experience held on the UW campus. This program allows the students to learn in a college environment with an array of challenging instructors from various disciplines.

There are two main ways for us to get involved with Upward Bound:

1. Our department can help with the instruction of the summer program. For several years, one of our graduate students has assisted in the program and has established a working relationship with the students and staff of Upward Bound. Although his role has been as a science instructor, Upward Bound is always in need of TAs and other assistants, roles that are ideal for younger graduate students.

2. Most Upward Bound students will ultimately attend the UW. Even with extensive preparation, the transition to college can be challenging for Upward Bound students. We have seen many of these students in our introductory astronomy courses (only identified as UB students by the aforementioned graduate student). They often struggle. It has been suggested by Upward Bound staff that if we knew that a large number of UB students were taking one of the intro classes, we could work with other UB staff to ensure their success. Upward Bound, in tandem with the UW’s Office of Minority Affairs, provides extensive tutoring opportunities, which could be tapped into for help in introductory astronomy.


GEAR-UP is a program very similar to Upward Bound. It serves underrepresented students from both middle and high school, with the intention of helping them to attend and be successful in college. During the academic year, the program employs mentors to work with students. Our department can take part in the program most effectively in the summer. In fact, GEAR-UP may be the most efficient program for our department to take part in at the K-12 level, because it serves a large number of students and requires a small level of commitment. During the summer, GEAR-UP brings 1000 students to campus. They live in the dorms, take classes, and explore campus in four-day intensive seminars. This experience is not only of tremendous value to the educational advancement of the students but also helps to demystify college.

For the past several years, we have assisted GEAR-UP by giving planetarium shows to some of their groups. Although planetarium shows are valuable, we can perhaps have the largest effect by participating as instructors in the summer seminars. GEAR-UP is very flexible about how many sessions we must commit to, and, as with other programs, most of the administrative work is done for us. This would be an excellent opportunity for a member of the faculty or a graduate student, and it need not be too much of a commitment. (Additionally, there is a small financial reward for participating.)

Minority Science and Engineering Program

The Minority Science and Engineering Program (MSEP) is a program run through the School of Engineering. We have already had some conversations with the director, Gene Magallanes. Although this program deals primarily with current UW students who are interested in both engineering and science, it has an extensive recruiting and pre-university program that we could easily be a part of. MSEP works with the Office of Admissions to identify underrepresented students who are interested in science and engineering.

These students are invited to participate in a program called ALVA before their freshman year. They take intensive calculus classes and participate in research programs both at the university and in industry (for example, at JPL). Our discussions with Gene have been about this program. He has funding to pay students to work in departments such as astronomy, and only needs commitment from faculty members who are willing to mentor a young student. Not only is this a great way to excite students about astronomy, but because of his extensive National Science Foundation (NSF) funding, Gene can work with faculty on writing the ALVA program into the outreach sections of their NSF grants. This is a very exciting program that is already funded and has very little to no administrative overhead for our department.

Off-campus programs

These are programs whose major component is outreach into off-campus communities.

Project Astro-Bio

Project Astro-Bio is perhaps the most obvious way for us to connect with underrepresented students in K-12 schools. This program has enjoyed many years of success and is run from within our department. Some of the schools with which we work serve large numbers of underrepresented students, but currently there is no formal program to ensure that the schools visited by Project Astro-Bio astronomers are diverse in their population. Some effort will need to be put into recruiting teachers with diverse classrooms and maintaining close relationships with these teachers and their schools.

Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement

Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) is a national program designed to provide support for minority students who are interested in science and engineering. The program organizes activities for both K-12 and college level students. For example, MESA maintains a list of people who come and speak to classrooms or MESA clubs around the state. This is a direct way that faculty and graduate students can participate in the program.

MESA’s Introduction To Engineering (MITE) is a two-week, live-in program for high school students at the UW. Although this is a program for students interested in engineering, it is important to remember that most of these students will come to the UW and that some of them will not choose to stay in engineering. We have assisted this program with planetarium shows the past several years.

Talent Search

Talent Search is another federally funded program that works with both middle school and high school students from underrepresented backgrounds. Although there is no summer component to Talent Search, the staff is always interested in having people come speak to their students and serve as contacts when students have questions or concerns about astronomy, science, or college in general. The commitment to a program such as Talent Search is the same as giving a talk to a local astronomical society, but the impact is much greater.

Making Connections & Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Mathematics

Making Connections and Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Mathematics are both programs working to excite young women about careers in the sciences and mathematics. Making Connections serves socio-economically disadvantaged high school students in the Seattle area by promoting college enrollment and offering career exploration in math, science and technology.[3] The program offers mentoring opportunities for its high school participants as well as workshops. Expanding Your Horizons organizes conferences for middle school and high school students around the country. One such conference for middle school students is planned for spring 2004 at Bellevue Community College, and represents an excellent opportunity to introduce hundreds of young women to the possibility of a career in astronomy.

Office of Minority Affairs

The Office of Minority Affairs (OMA) participates in extensive recruitment efforts around the Pacific Northwest. They take professors and sometimes students with them to college fairs, community colleges, and various high schools. This program gives us an excellent opportunity to be part of the recruiting process that brings underrepresented students to the UW. Again, most of the administrative overhead is done for us. All we have to do is to contact OMA and express interest.

NSF Graduate Teaching Fellowships

The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Teaching Fellowships in K-12 Education allow graduate students to work directly in the Seattle public school system. The UW is home to two such programs. The Partnership for Research in Inquiry-based Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Education (PRIME) program provides $18,000 and a cost of education allowance for ten months to students working to enhance learning among middle school students, teachers, and Fellows in Math, Science, and Engineering.[4] The GK-12 Program in Mathematics is similar, although its emphasis is on math instruction. Two current graduate students are recent recipients of these fellowships whose main benefits may be that participants feel directly involved in the education of the next generation of scientists.

III. Undergraduates

In this section we identify a number of UW programs through which talented women and minority undergraduate students can be identified and supported. We also discuss other ways in which to reach this same goal.

UW programs

The UW hosts a fairly large number of programs that bring underrepresented students to the campus and provide support to them as they go through their undergraduate careers. The department should work with these different programs to identify and advise students who are in the early stages of their undergraduate careers and who have an interest in astronomy. Additionally, since many of these students may not yet know they are interested, the department should ensure that it is represented whenever orientation programs, seminars, and research symposia are held. All of these programs also welcome participation in their mentorship and tutoring activities.

Many of these programs were mentioned in the previous section, as they begin work with students before they are of college age (MSEP, MESA, etc.). A number focus on providing support to students during their time in college:

Ronald E. McNair Program

The Ronald E. McNair Program, housed in the Office of Minority Affairs, aims to successfully support low-income, first generation students, and students from groups underrepresented in graduate education, in their efforts to become researchers and teachers at the university level.[5] At least one recent UW physics/astronomy graduate was a McNair scholar. In addition, the McNair Program, in conjunction with GO-MAP (see next section), hosts an annual spring conference bringing together McNair scholars from the Northwest.

Early Identification Program

Another OMA program, the Early Identification Program (EIP), encourages and assists undergraduates from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds to prepare for, enter, and succeed in graduate or professional school.[6]

College of Engineering’s Center for Women in Science and Engineering

The College of Engineering’s Center for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), among other things, identifies students in the freshman year interested in science and engineering through a survey and contact individuals, and it offers orientation programs and seminars.[7]

Hispanic Scholarship Fund Scholar Chapter

The Hispanic Scholarship Fund Scholar Chapter (HSC) helps to strengthen the pipeline of Latino students into higher education by connecting former [recipients of the scholarship] with current and future scholars.[8]

To tackle the problem of retention, the department should maintain a list of relevant scholarships that can be used to support these students in their studies,[9] as well as participate in the faculty mentorship program that the Office of Minority Affairs is building.

Community colleges and minority serving institutions[10]

Many minority students come to the UW via local community colleges (CCs). Our department has had informal relationships with a number of these institutions; in particular, members of the department have taught courses there, and UW PhDs have joined their faculty.[11] But more can be done to identify students transitioning from the CCs to the UW who have an interest in astronomy.

For example, we could provide instructors with information about the major at the UW so that they can advise interested students about the requirements they will need to transfer. Shoreline Community College, North Seattle Community College, Seattle Central Community College, and Everett Community College are four local CCs that have astronomy courses in their curricula.

There are two minority-serving institutions in Washington State: Heritage College in Toppenish and Northwest Indian College in Bellingham. Neither currently has a formal astronomy component in its curriculum. However, contacts with faculty at the colleges could prove fruitful in identifying talented students for summer research in our department. (We believe that Heritage College brings students to the UW during the summer; the dean of science at Northwest, Ted Williams, was trained as an astronomer.)

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU)

Five current or recent graduate students in our department are graduates of a single REU program (at the Arecibo Observatory). Many others participated in at least one other REU, testifying to the power of these experiences. Ultimately, an REU program may therefore be the most effective way of attracting undergraduate students, both locally and nationally, to our field. For example, we can advertise such a program at events like the annual meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists, discussed in the next section. We can also use it to connect with and involve students from the Seattle-area community colleges. Furthermore, an REU program could be used to attract students identified by the UW alumni working at local four-year institutions[12] (and elsewhere!), where research opportunities may be different from those in our department.

An REU program could take any number of forms: building on the one currently in place in the Physics Department, tying in to the Astrobiology program, or standing alone. (In conversations with Julie Lutz, she indicated that Space Grant may also be able to offer financial support for such a program.) Discussion about an REU program should be at the heart of the department’s thinking about diversity.

IV. Graduates

In this section we identify several UW programs through which talented women and minority graduate students can be identified and supported. We discuss ideas to encourage the development of a professional, supportive culture for graduate students of all backgrounds.

Identification of promising undergraduates

There are a number of on-campus efforts that identify promising undergraduates interested in graduate studies. Among these resources are:

The McNair Scholars Database Directory

A list updated each spring with information for undergraduate students in the McNair Program (see last section) who are interested in continuing on to graduate study. The McNair Database contains the names, addresses, majors and areas of interest for graduate study of seniors who will graduate in December and May.[13]

The National Name Exchange

A consortium of twenty-eight nationally known universities (of which the UW is a member) established to annually collect and exchange the names of … talented but underrepresented ethnic minority students who are in their junior or senior year of their undergraduate education. The purpose of the Exchange is to ensure that participating universities continue to identify a pool of qualified students who could be recruited to the graduate programs at these institutions.[14]

Both of these resources can be accessed through the Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program (GO-MAP). Consulting these sources will provide our department with a list of talented students nearing graduation who have an interest in graduate study in astronomy. In addition, yearly undergraduate research symposia are organized by the McNair Program and others (for example, the UW Undergraduate Research Symposium, also held each spring[15]), and the department should ensure that it is present at these.

Though the resources above will reveal promising students from across the nation, these students’ interests may or may not mesh well with the research interests of UW faculty. To identify students with appropriate interests in a more efficient manner, UW faculty should cultivate informal, research-based relationships with astronomers from minority-serving institutions. These relationships, over time, will increase the visibility of the UW in the eyes of those students whose research experiences are most strongly aligned with our own, and who are therefore most likely to attend the UW. Institutions with sizable minority and underrepresented student bodies include:

Women’s colleges

Barnard College, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Wellesley College, Scripps

Historically Black Colleges, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities

See footnote 10.

In addition, the membership of the following organizations includes both faculty with whom useful research relationships can be formed and undergraduates whose interests may well include astronomy:

National Society of Black Physicists

The National Society of Black Physicists, a group that seeks to promote the professional well-being of African American physicists within the international scientific community and within society at large.[16] Annual meetings are typically held in February; the 2004 meeting coincides with a special meeting of the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (see below);

National Society of Hispanic Physicists

The National Society of Hispanic Physicists, an organization that aims to increase opportunities for Hispanics in physics and to increase the number of practicing Hispanic physicists, particularly by encouraging Hispanic students to enter a career in physics.[17]

Relationships with members of the above schools and organizations will be long-term investments, which may not show significant results immediately. However, we believe that actively developing research relationships with members of these institutions will substantially increase the visibility of the UW graduate program among minority and underrepresented students who are interested in careers in astronomy.

Financial support for underrepresented students

The first step in attaining desirable graduate students is to encourage a diverse population of students to apply to the UW. The second is to ensure that is it practical for them to come here. The most promising students admitted to the UW will likely be heavily recruited by other universities as well. Well-timed supplements to the department’s standard level of financial support may help the department gain a competitive edge over other institutions vying for the most talented students. We have attempted to identify sources of additional financial support that may be useful in recruiting underrepresented students.

GO-MAP Diversity Fellowships

These range anywhere from one-year dissertation awards to two-year fellowships which recipients may use during their first and last (dissertation) years.[18] These awards are highly sought after given their timing, and many departments utilize them to augment their own funding in order to entice prospective students and to compete with other schools’ more lucrative support offers.

Graduate Opportunity Program (GOP) Research Assistantships

These are nine-month research assistantships for students beginning study at the Masters or PhD level. (It may be possible to make arrangements to defer the assistantship during the student’s second year, thus allowing the recipient more time to focus on her or his Qual studies.) GO-MAP awards approximately 16 to 18 GOP RAs, to reward departments for their efforts to diversify their graduate student body, and to aid them in recruiting/attracting the very best underrepresented students to the UW. The department applies for each award shortly after student applications have been submitted, if there are promising candidates. (The 2003 deadline was Feb. 11th.) The application consists mainly of submitting a diversity plan that outlines departmental efforts to increase recruitment and retention of students from diverse backgrounds.

Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Fellowships

ARCS fellowships, provided to the UW by the Seattle chapter of ARCS, are used as a recruiting tool to attract the nation’s most outstanding young scholars to pursue graduate studies at the UW.[19] The department has made ample use of ARCS monies in the past to entice highly desirable graduate students to attend the UW. ARCS fellows receive $5000 of additional support per year for up to three years. (Space Grant has similarly provided supplementary funds for incoming students.) ARCS also funds the ARCS Founders Fellowship, a three year, $10000 per year grant awarded to supplement the stipend of a minority graduate student.

Once students are part of the department, they should be encouraged to apply to the national programs that fund underrepresented students. The Ford Foundation, for example, offers Predoctoral and Dissertation Fellowships for Minorities, funding both a pre-doctoral three-year fellowship (one year at least must be used to complete course work) and a one-year dissertation fellowship. Another such program is the NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Program, which provides roughly $30,000 of support each year for up to three years. The requirements for these programs vary (in particular, when in his/her career a student can apply), and it is crucial that the application information is given to eligible students at the appropriate time.

Cultural Development

Faculty at minority-serving institutions sometimes discourage their students from applying to research 1 graduate programs because of the lack of active mentorship relative to what they experience at the undergraduate level. More generally, graduate students often feel that their programs provide only passive support, responding only to those who explicitly ask for additional attention or reach a moment of crisis. However, identifying a mentor is often impossible for any student at the outset of his or her graduate career. Cultivating proactive, mentoring relationships distinct from advising relationships in the department would provide additional support for all, as well as making the department more welcoming to underrepresented applicants.

A number of venues for building these relationships have been suggested (most frequently, a faculty/student retreat). In addition, more straightforward professional development issues may be uniformly and consistently addressed according to the model developed by Chris Stubbs and Maresi Nerad for post-docs at Berkeley. Happily, we believe increased support in these areas will improve the experience of all graduate students, not just members of underrepresented groups. However, we do think that members of underrepresented groups will suffer more greatly if these resources are absent.

An important component in sustaining any diverse student body is promoting diverse candidates for positions at all levels of the department. The pool of candidates for faculty positions and colloquium speakers should reflect, as fully as possible, the diversity of the public that provides government support for our field. The UW ADVANCE program has, in the past, looked favorably upon requests to provide honoraria for speakers who (broadly interpreted) serve ADVANCE’s mission to eliminate existing barriers and precipitate cultural change at both the departmental and institutional level.[20] We believe the conscious inclusion of a woman or person of color (better yet, both!) in each term’s colloquium schedule will help the speakers more accurately reflect the makeup of the broader astronomical field, and may result in funding from the ADVANCE program.

Lastly, we believe that the work environment created by cohorts of graduate students should be actively crafted to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all. Though some might think it goes without saying, past experience shows that it is wise to remind graduate students that some activities (the use of sexually explicit language, of demeaning terms denoting gender or sexual orientation, of racial slurs, and the viewing of pornographic material) can create hostile work environments. As well, it may be useful to address how patterns of socialization (for example, the important role of sports in departmental social life) can feed back into patterns of professional development that are not gender and race neutral.

As a first step, we arranged for a workshop, held during the new student orientation in late September, to focus on these issues, and to provide team-building experiences for both new graduate students and for older students who no longer take courses. The workshop was mediated by professionals from the National Coalition Building Institute and funding was provided by the ADVANCE program. Feedback from participants indicates that the workshop was a success, and we may want to make it a regular piece of the orientation.

V. Conclusion

Nearly a year ago, we wrote an open letter to the department highlighting the need, in our opinion, to formulate a plan for increasing the recruitment and the retention of underrepresented students in our field. This document is, we hope, a step in that direction.

Where do we go from here? As a department, we need to survey the programs and resources available to us. We need to commit, for the duration, to investing time and energy in those that will provide the greatest return. Too often our efforts, well intentioned and sometimes very successful, have been piecemeal and brief, overly dependent on one person’s energies.

While the challenge is daunting, we are the premier astronomy department in the Northwest, and this work will only enhance our reputation.

Shout-outs & Thanks: Suzanne Brainard, Sheila Edwards Lange, & everyone at ADVANCE; Keivan Stassun; Johnnella Butler & Jerry Pangilinan at GO-MAP; Maresi Nerad; Kristine Washburn; MLP.

[1] For articles addressing the benefits of diversity in higher education, see https://aas.org/comms/csma/spectrum.

[2] For an illustration of the pipeline as envisioned by NASA, see Figure 1. For a recent discussion of the leaky pipeline problem for women physicists, see “What Works for Women in Undergraduate Physics?”, Physics Today, September 2003.

[3] http://depts.washington.edu/womenctr/programs/MConn.htm

[4] https://www.washington.edu/news/1999/11/12/graduate-math-science-and-engineering-students-can-get-prime-experience-through-fellowships-in-new-uw-program/

[5] https://sites.uw.edu/uwmcnair/

[6] https://www.washington.edu/omad/

[7] http://www.engr.washington.edu/wise/

[8] https://www.hsf.net/

[9] For example, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund ($1000 to $2500 a year, renewable) and the Diversity Scholarship Fund ($5000 for a minority astronomy major; while this may be a one-time scholarship, there may well be others).

[10] For a list of all the accredited minority serving institutions, see http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/edlite-minorityinst-as-vi.html

[11] For example, Andrew Vanture at Everett Community College.

[12] We are thinking specifically of George “Pinky” Nelson at Western Washington University and of Bernard Bates at the University of the Puget Sound.

[13] https://sites.uw.edu/uwmcnair/meet-our-scholars/

[14] http://www.grad.washington.edu/nameexch/national/

[15] see http://www.washington.edu/research/urp/symp/

[16] https://www.nsbp.org/

[17] http://physics.utep.edu/physics/nshp/nshp.html; the current president of the NSHP is the UW’s own Prof. Oscar Vilches.

[18] A full list of these fellowships is available at https://grad.uw.edu/graduate-student-funding/funding-information-for-students/fellowships/list-of-fellowships/

[19] https://grad.uw.edu/about-the-graduate-school/support-the-graduate-school/achievement-rewards-for-college-scientists-arcs/

[20] https://advance.washington.edu/