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Faculty and staff from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a giant step toward better recruiting and educating a more diverse generation of scientists on Feb. 19 with the first Diversity in STEM Conference.

“It’s really important for us that we continue to think about ways that we value diversity, how it increases our educational impact to have a room full of people with different ideas, that come from different backgrounds that walked a different path into that very moment of debate and learning,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt.

Hosted by Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, and the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the daylong Diversity in STEM Conference was the first of its kind at Carolina.

Although the conversation of diversity in STEM has long been a focus of departments and groups around campus, the conference was the first opportunity for faculty and staff to have a University-wide dialogue.

And it is an important dialogue. Nationally, 40 percent of the students who enter college desiring a degree in the sciences, technology, engineering or math graduate from their planned majors. That number drops to 15 percent for underrepresented students.

With an already severe shortage of professionals with the skills required to find solutions for pressing issues, the ability to find different perspectives in that pool has become a challenge.

“The problems that we’re having in the world are becoming more complex,” said Marco Barker, senior director for Education, Operations and Initiatives for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. “The challenges that we’re facing are really calling for different perspectives and diverse perspectives. We have to think differently about how we do science and who is doing science.

“As a campus, the way that we can make major progress and be able to move the University forward is leveraging what everyone is doing and coming together. The only way to do that is to have something like this.”

While Carolina is a top-tier institution and an academic leader, Barker said, the University still has room to grow in creating more diverse scientists — a necessity to remain a scientific leader.

But achieving the goal of diversity is more than just recruiting students; it means creating an environment the supports and nurtures those interested in science and math, he added.

That’s what organizers hope the Diversity in STEM Conference can help.

“These conversations are exciting,” said Taffye Benson Clayton, associate vice chancellor for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, and chief diversity officer. “They’re about pedagogical approaches, about student thriving, developing inclusive classrooms for the sciences, and of course the more general of creating an inclusive campus climate.”

Throughout the conference, sessions were led by nationally-recognized diversity in STEM leaders. Speakers included Sylvia Hurtado, professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and division head for the Division of Higher Education and Organizational Change at UCLA; John Matsui, co-founder and director of the Biology Scholars Program in the Department of Integrative Biology at University of California Berkley; Andrew Campbell, Associate Professor of Medical Science in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology in the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University; Rick McGee, Associate Dean for Faculty Recruitment & Professional Development and Professor in Medical Education in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

Discussions focused on positive impacts of multicultural student populations and faculty, and the benefits of diverse research teams.

Richard Watkins, program coordinator for the Chancellor’s Science Scholars, said he hopes the sessions will create new dialogues and concepts that the faculty and staff members can take back to their departments. Doing so, he said, will be key to creating the next generation of scientists with diversity in mind.

“They’re going to be able to bring up some of these pieces which ultimately are absolutely critical to making the University better,” Watkins said. “We’re always looking for ways to provide belter services to not only students, but all of society. By having our faculty, staff and students walk away with knowledge that they possibly never have had before, it’s going to be absolutely amazing.

“It is our hope that it will make the University a much better place for people of all walks of life, and that we’re able to continue to produce grade-A talent that we’re able to put out into society to solve very, very challenging problems.“

By Brandon Bieltz, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Published February 19, 2016