LGBTQ in STEMImage credit: Guanaco, Wikimedia CommonsLong an innovator in broadening participation in the engineering education of underserved and underrepresented minorities, the Rowan University Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering now is taking a lead in transforming science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community.

Rowan ChemE prof leads team

Rowan Engineering’s Dr. Stephanie Farrell is heading a national team working under a $299,998 National Science Foundation EAGER (Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research) award recently presented to the American Society for Engineering Education for the project titled “Promoting LGBTQ Equality in Engineering through Virtual Communities of Practice.”

Farrell, a professor of chemical engineering, is teaming with engineers and sociologists from ASEE and Rice, Temple and Michigan Technological universities in pioneering this work, which links diversity research with a faculty development initiative to advance LGBTQ equality in STEM.

In applying for funding, the grant recipients cited compelling evidence that diversity among students and faculty is crucially important to the intellectual and social development of all students. Their project aligns with NSF’s goal to promote a more diverse STEM workforce by promoting equality in the LGBTQ community – a group that has been underserved by other efforts to increase diversity in the profession

Climate chillier in STEM

Research has shown that STEM students and professionals experience a chillier climate than their peers in other fields, according to Farrell. This can result in stress, social and academic/professional isolation, limited opportunities for success, and anxiety about current or future job security. In a study that compared the academic climate and career consequences for LGBTQ faculty, those in STEM fields reported the highest level of discomfort on campus, in departments and in classrooms, and those who were not comfortable were 2.6 times more likely to consider leaving.

While there has been a gradual positive change in campus climate for LGBTQ individuals, research shows that STEM departments have lagged behind other disciplines in the adoption of inclusive practices.

NSF has long supported efforts to broaden participation in engineering through improved educational practices, to provide equal educational opportunities to all students and to prepare the future workforce.

Farrell noted the ASEE research will generate vital knowledge about factors in STEM culture that promote or hinder LGBTQ inclusion. “This will enable us to create research-informed training to foster a positive and welcoming environment for LGBTQ individuals in STEM departments.”

Exploring transformative work

The NSF EAGER funding supports exploratory work that is untested and potentially transformative, with the ability to impact practice. EAGER research is considered “high-risk, high-pay-off” in the sense that it involves new subjects, radically different approaches and novel interdisciplinary perspectives.

For this project, that work includes, in part, conducting research that explores the aspects of STEM culture that serve as impediments to LGBTQ equality, training STEM leaders and working via a virtual environment to build support.

The project links research and action that build on the successful outcomes of prior work sponsored by NSF.  Building on the research of team member Dr. Erin Cech (Rice University), this project will explore particular ideologies in STEM culture that may impede LGBTQ equality.

“Through face-to-face and online training, the project will build a network of LGBTQ-affirming faculty who are aware of strategies to foster an inclusive environment and are empowered to advance LGBTQ equality in their departments,” Farrell said. 

Training the trainers

The project will include a two-tiered training structure, in which two “meta-trainers” will train a team of eight community leaders. Those leaders then will lead Safe Zone workshops and establish communities to promote LGBTQ inclusion in academic STEM departments. These workshops will raise awareness for LGBTQ inclusion and create a network of allies to foster a supportive environment for LGBTQ individuals in engineering. Farrell said the team plans to train at least 200 faculty members nationwide through the workshops.

Additionally, the team will establish a virtual community, in which faculty will work together to identify approaches and develop and implement action plans to promote LGBTQ equality in their own departments and identify best practices for transforming the climate in STEM. Farrell said their goal is for at least 20 STEM departments nationwide to join the effort.

In order to reach a broad audience of faculty nationwide, the project activities will be conducted online using interactive virtual meeting technology. In addition, the researchers will offer face-to-face Safe Zone workshops at professional society conferences.

Enhancing the workforce

The project also is a workforce initiative. “Given the need to increase our STEM workforce to remain competitive in a global economy, efforts must be made to attract and retain talented individuals to STEM disciplines and professions.  To this end, increasing diversity in science and engineering has become a national priority,” Farrell said.

For Farrell, involvement in promoting diversity is nothing new. “I have participated in Safe Zone workshops at Rowan, and this has raised my awareness of the subtle biases and assumptions as well as the overt discrimination that LGBTQ individuals face. I also realized the importance of showing visible acceptance and support of LGBTQ individuals, and the workshops showed me how to do that in my professional work. To bring these ideas to the larger professional arena, I’ve worked with ASEE’s Diversity Committee to offer 20 workshops at the ASEE annual conference during the last two years, and we’ve trained more than 250 engineering faculty from institutions across the country. This new project is an opportunity to improve that training to make it more directly relevant to STEM education and to broaden the impact of the workshops by reaching a larger audience.”

“I hope that this project will contribute to a change in engineering culture that moves matters of social justice and inclusion closer to the core of professional practice in STEM,” Farrell added.