APS News

APS Receives $3M NSF Grant to Help Minorities Pursue PhDs

By Bushraa Khatib

APS Bridge logoIn September, the National Science Foundation awarded APS $3 million in funding over the next five years to launch the APS Bridge Program (APS-BP), a national effort designed to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who receive doctoral degrees in physics. The program plans to select its first funded site and accept student applications for fall 2013.

Underrepresented minority students, including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans, earn about 10% of US physics bachelors degrees, yet they comprise only about 5% to 6% of US citizens who receive physics PhDs at American institutions. The main goal of the APS-BP is to roughly double the number of PhDs awarded to these students within the next ten years by developing sustainable “bridging” models to provide these students with research opportunities, advanced coursework, and mentoring, and to facilitate these students’ access to graduate programs. Also, the project will enable departments to enhance the culture of their physics graduate education so that all students have the best chance of success.

The program plans to select institutions to host bridging experiences through an NSF-style competitive proposal process, modeled on the one used by the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), the APS flagship project that focuses on physics teacher education, run collaboratively with the American Association of Physics Teachers. The APS-BP anticipates issuing a request for site proposals in October.

The APS-BP is also partnering with doctoral granting institutions to provide transitional support as bridge students begin doctoral studies. “Ideally, we would like to support students through a network of mentors, advisors, and graduate student peer-mentors from the start of their bridge years until they earn their PhDs,” says Bridge Program Manager Peter Muhoro. “The program aims to strengthen mentoring and work with faculty to improve the graduate education environment.”

Other components of the new program include: conferences with topics on graduate mentoring, improving students’ graduate applications, and other topics relevant to students and faculty; building a national network of institutions committed to improving diversity in graduate education; and publicizing good practice in attracting and retaining underrepresented students in graduate programs. “APS is uniquely positioned to facilitate national conversations on improving diversity in graduate education and to connect institutions with others committed to the same goals,” said Theodore Hodapp, Director of APS Education and Diversity, and project director of the Bridge Program.

Program management spent several years visiting minority-serving and doctoral-granting institutions to build relationships and assess the best methods of increasing the number of minorities who receive PhDs. The APS-BP decided to base its efforts on existing bridge programs, including those at Fisk-Vanderbilt, Columbia University, MIT, and University of Michigan.

Cherry Murray–Dean of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard University, chair of the Bridge Program’s National Advisory Board, and 2009 APS President-led discussions with APS and other leaders in STEM education that culminated in the successful NSF proposal. Murray says the program will create a network of institutions that can share best practices in mentoring URM students through the degree and beyond who may not have considered pursuing a PhD in physics.

“These best practices will raise the level of collegiality and mentoring of all students in these PhD programs, and the cadre of student recruits to this program will help to enhance our scientific workforce,” Murray said.

More Information on the APS Bridge Program

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Editor: Alan Chodos