Long Island Institutions Model the Future of Diverse STEM Education

The AGEP PUI Alliance is fostering diverse and skilled candidates for teaching positions, taking a community-based and full-circle approach to STEM education

Photo of partner institution logos

In pursuit of diversifying the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education system, academic and research institutions on Long Island have come together to support emerging STEM professors from underrepresented minority groups. The newly formed collaboration, called the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) Predominately Undergraduate Institutions (PUI), includes Stony Brook University, Suffolk County Community College, Farmingdale State College, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“Across the STEM enterprise, we are lacking opportunities and training for underrepresented minorities in teaching positions, particularly at Predominately Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) that tend to have more students from underrepresented communities,” said Karl C. Clarke, a senior educational programs representative at Brookhaven Lab and coordinator of the AGEP PUI alliance. “The limited number of minorities who seek a faculty appointment are often taking positions at major research-intensive universities. As a result, there’s an identity crisis being created as the underrepresented minority students at PUIs may have limited options to connect with faculty members who they feel they can relate to.”

“We were hearing from our doctoral students that they needed better preparation for faculty careers at non-research-intensive institutions, so we wanted to build a better model for that type of career path,” said Toni Sperzel, who held the position of assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at Stony Brook University and project director of the AGEP PUI Alliance at the time of this interview (Sperzel has since left Stony Brook University). “STEM students typically don’t get the same level of teaching experience as students in the humanities do, so we thought, ‘What if we could give them more experience? And what if we could give them that additional experience at a PUI?”

Led by Stony Brook University, the AGEP PUI alliance offers training, resources, teaching opportunities, and community support to underrepresented minorities seeking professorial careers. Participants start the program with a series of workshops to build on their teaching skills. From there, the program diverges from the typical linear track most academic programs provide. As the students continue to complete their degrees, the AGEP PUI alliance connects them to mentors from the four participating institutions for microteaching experiences, postdoctoral appointments, and more.

“The AGEP PUI alliance takes a community approach to these students’ development,” Clarke said. “They’re on a linear track to complete their degree, but we’re adding a lot of tangential pieces to support them. We’re making sure these students are more competitive once they seek faculty positions by building an entire system around them to advance their careers.”

Potraits of Karl C. Clarke, Noel Blackburn, Ken White, Eric Wertheimer, Karian Wright, Candice Foley

Some of the AGEP PUI Alliance organizers, pictured from left to right: Karl C. Clarke (Office of Educational Programs, Brookhaven Lab), Noel Blackburn (Office of Educational Programs, Brookhaven Lab), Ken White (Manager, Office of Educational Programs, Brookhaven Lab), Eric Wertheimer (Graduate Dean, Stony Brook University), Karian Wright (Center for Inclusive Education, Stony Brook University), and Candice Foley (Suffolk County Community College). Karian Wright has been the program manager for the AGEP PUI Alliance at Stony Brook since its inception. Now as the Graduate School's Interim Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and the Interim Director of the Center for Inclusive Education, she looks forward to continuing Stony Brook's efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive academy. To see the full list of AGEP PUI Alliance staff and their roles, visit the Brookhaven website.

The AGEP PUI alliance launched with its first cohort in 2021, but the collaboration’s vision extends far beyond the present. The program’s leaders seek to create a scalable model that STEM institutions across the nation can adopt.

“Our mission is to develop, implement, evaluate, and disseminate a model that STEM institutions can use to ensure underrepresented minorities have the skills, resources, and support to make them competitive candidates and successful faculty members,” Clarke said.

A defining principle of the program and a key step towards realizing this vision is to make the AGEP PUI alliance a network that continues to engage participants and their institutions past graduation.

“We want to make fundamental, cultural changes at STEM institutions to foster an inclusive environment,” Sperzel said. “We not only want our students to land a teaching position at a PUI, but we also want these students to bring their newly acquired resources and expertise to their PUI of employment, providing better opportunities for the next generation of students.”

The AGEP PUI alliance is just one alliance among a series of programs funded by the National Science Foundation. Stony Brook University has been part of various AGEP alliances since 2000, including a former collaboration with Brookhaven Lab that started in 2012. One participant from this earlier AGEP collaboration is already fulfilling the vision of the AGEP PUI alliance. Paulo Castillo was a graduate student at the City College of New York who came through the AGEP program, received two postdoctoral appointments at Brookhaven Lab, and ultimately landed a teaching position at Farmingdale Sate College. Now an assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering technology department at Farmingdale, he’s also a guest researcher at Brookhaven through the visiting faculty program and an AGEP PUI mentor.

“AGEP supported me throughout the process of finding my career and it put me in the position to become a better scientist. I really enjoyed being part of that community as a student and it continues to be part of my life as a professor. Now I pull my students into the AGEP PUI alliance as well,” Castillo said. “Farmingdale students have a lot of potential, but since I arrived here with my experience from AGEP, it’s the first time my department is seeing a significant number of students transition into doctoral programs. Students tend to think it is impossible to make the transition from a technical school to a PhD program, but if the transition includes the right training, then they can do it. My students are showing it already and succeeding. I am really proud of them.”

Suffolk County Community College has seen similar hesitancy from its students when it comes to pursuing doctoral degrees and teaching positions, but the AGEP PUI alliance is providing new motivation.

“The AGEP PUI alliance is the missing piece among all the other National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health programs we have ongoing at Suffolk. It gives us the opportunity to fill in a gap and complete the 360-degree picture of the whole educational spectrum,” said Candice Foley, a retired chemistry professor at Suffolk who continues serving the college as a program consultant for the AGEP PUI alliance and other diversity initiatives. “When AGEP participants come to teach at Suffolk, our undergraduate students see themselves in the potential of these young teachers from similar backgrounds. It inspires them and tells them, ‘I can do this too.’”

As the AGEP PUI alliance continues to grow and evolve, the collaboration hopes to bring in larger cohorts in future iterations of the program, expand each institution’s role, and see more success stories that bring past participants back as mentors.

“Our team has put years of effort into building relationships that support a diverse STEM pipeline,” said Ken White, manager of Brookhaven’s Office of Educational Programs. “Knowing that a high percentage of minorities in STEM attend PUIs makes it essential to build PUI faculty familiarity with DOE user facilities through collaborative research. It makes the AGEP participants more competitive for faculty positions and serves as a feeder for their students to participate in our internship programs.”

“Here at Brookhaven, we want to make sure every individual participating in future iterations of the AGEP PUI alliance engages with the Laboratory, because it’s an opportunity for us to diversify our own institution while providing students with the skills they need,” Clarke said. “We are structuring this program so that we support these individuals, in addition to the larger network, so it all comes full circle to the students they will serve in the future.”

The AGEP PUI Alliance is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1821083, 1821005 & 1820997. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.

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2021-17719  |  INT/EXT  |  Newsroom