BOX 7-1Rice University Computational and Applied Mathematics Program

The American Mathematical Society (AMS) presented Rice University’s Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAAM) Department its 2010 “Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference” award in acknowledgment of “the department’s unwavering commitment to students through individual guidance and support” that “has created an exceptionally welcoming community in which students thrive.” For 25 years, the Rice University Computational and Applied Mathematics Department has worked to increase participation of underrepresented minority (URM) students at the PhD level. Over those 25 years, 34 URM PhDs (6 African American, 15 domestic Hispanics, and 13 Latin American Hispanics) have been produced. An additional 33 women have received CAAM PhDs over this period.

CAAM URM graduates have distinguished themselves across the country in government labs, industry, and university faculties, many in positions of leadership. Also, the CAAM department program has served as a model for first a university-wide, then a Houston-wide program across all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, and for an engineering-wide program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M).

Program Vision: Admitting a full spectrum of underrepresented minority students, some of which would be rejected using traditional admissions criteria, and then creating a community that provides academic, social, and personal support are the cornerstones of the CAAM program. The goal was to find the “diamonds in the rough” so as to increase participation nationally, not just to compete with other good schools for the few stellar students that would be accepted at any elite school in the country.

Admissions: CAAM admissions decisions are made by the CAAM Graduate Admissions Committee, with input from a central committee that is part of Rice’s Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program, that advises on minority graduate admissions across all science and engineering departments. The AGEP committee controls approximately 16 graduate minority fellowships and tuition waivers funded by Rice each year, and the CAAM department, as well as all other STEM departments, sends applications to this committee for consideration. Since department graduate admissions committees tend to be rotating, and new committee members may not understand or share the goal of diversity, this standing committee provides continuity of purpose and understanding on diversity matters.

The committee takes a holistic approach to evaluating students for admissions; standardized test scores, undergraduate grades, quality of undergraduate institution, and letters of recommendation are all reviewed as a whole. For GRE scores, the committee chooses a threshold score at which students should be successful. Students with scores significantly above the threshold are deemed to be equivalent, relative to the test score; the score is dismissed, and admission decisions are guided by the other criteria. Students with scores near the threshold value are considered with extra care, and students with scores significantly below the threshold, have to have very strong credentials otherwise to be accepted.

Admissions is still an art rather than a science, but experience and better understanding of how to evaluate is gained with each new class. Having the input of a knowledgeable and caring minority committee lessens the mistakes of excluding people with the ability to succeed or admitting people who do not. Having the strength of funding behind them gives the AGEP committee some clout with the department about decisions. Current underrepresented minority students also play a major role in the recruitment of new students. They recruit at national meetings in coordination with departmental recruiters. Moreover, they play a role in hosting and entertaining visiting underrepresented minority students who have been accepted by the various departments.

Retention: No quality captures the essence of the CAAM program like that of community. Incoming URM students are brought to Rice during the summer prior to their first year. That summer is spent working on a research project, but the primary purpose is to help students develop a support system before they start classes. Students who are more senior mentor the incoming students in this acclimatization. Bringing together students and faculty from all STEM departments creates a critical mass for community, and concerns among the graduate students across STEM disciplines are often common enough to share as support for one another. These weekly sessions include guest speakers, student research presentations, social interactions, and professional development activities.

Faculty Involvement: Strong faculty involvement is a key component of the Rice CAAM model. The CAAM program creates close student-faculty relationships early in students’ careers with minority and other caring faculty to build trust for any future interventions. What has proven successful at CAAM is that the faculty program leaders keep close watch on students and proactively check on their progress. They then make recommendations such as study groups, tutoring, a reduced course load, and undergraduate courses, even changing research advisors or stepping in to co-advise. Important in all of this is that no stigma accompanies these recommendations. Students frequently emerge from these actions strong and on par with other CAAM students.

— Richard Tapia, Rice University

From: 7, The Journey Beyond the Crossroads

Cover of Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation
Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation.
National Academy of Sciences (US), National Academy of Engineering (US), and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011.
Copyright © 2011, National Academy of Sciences.

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