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Visiting Academic Leader Issues Challenge to Broaden STEM Participation at Old Dominion

A large, diverse group of Old Dominion University's academic leadership was issued a challenge March 30 by Karan Watson, provost and executive vice president of Texas A&M University.

A group of ODU faculty and administrative leaders have worked to broaden participation in STEM-H disciplines to under-represented populations.

Watson told a packed session at the Strome Entrepreneurial Center that becoming truly inclusive in disciplines like STEM involves acknowledging the implicit bias behind why they have historically been dominated by white males.

"It doesn't go away easily," said Watson, who referred to studies of how in-groups, and especially out-groups, can be created in very young children, by simply reinforcing certain choices.

Historically, white men have been encouraged to study math or science, either through selection processes that favor them or finding themselves surrounded by similar people when they enter these programs, Watson said.

"We are tribal, as people. That reinforces how these patterns occur" and necessitates energy to make STEM-H programs reflect society more broadly, she added.

Watson's visit to Old Dominion was coordinated by Karen Eck, assistant vice president for research, and Debra Major, professor and eminent scholar of psychology. Both are leaders of Old Dominion's Broadening Participation in STEM-H group. Her March 30 talk was part of a multi-day visit that included several meetings across campus. Watson is recognized as a national scholar on issues of diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

According to figures from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Old Dominion had 6,195 undergraduate and graduate African-American students, its highest figure to date, and more than any other public doctoral institution in Virginia.

ODU is one of Virginia's largest producers of STEM-H degrees. A faculty working group was formed last spring to promote data gathering, networking, and institutional support for STEM-H-related research and educational opportunities.

The Broadening Participation in STEM-H group brings faculty together each semester to discuss partnerships and funding opportunities and learn from outside sources.

The visit to Old Dominion also represented a reunion of sorts for Watson and one of her former student mentees from Texas A&M, Stephanie Adams, dean of Old Dominion's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology. The two remain good friends.

A video of Watson's presentation to the ODU campus is available at ODUOnline (requires Midas ID to view).

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