Auburn math professor recipient of inaugural NSF award for increasing diversity in the sciences

Published: September 26, 2016
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Auburn University's Overtoun Jenda is among the first recipients of a National Science Foundation award for its new NSF INCLUDES program. Jenda, assistant provost for special projects and initiatives and professor of mathematics, received $298,424 for his project "South East Alliance for Persons with Disabilities in STEM."

NSF INCLUDES, or Inclusion Across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science, is a fresh approach to broadening participation in the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. The program will improve access to education and career pathways in the STEM disciplines on a national scale to underserved populations.

The initial recipients comprise 37 Design and Development Launch Pilots, funded through two-year grants to support projects with the potential to deliver prototypes for bold, new models that broaden participation in STEM.

Jenda's project represents a collaborative effort with multiple people from institutions around the Southeast, including Carl Pettis, associate dean and associate professor of mathematics at Alabama State University, Mohammed Qazi, professor of mathematics at Tuskegee University, and Maithilee Kunda, assistant professor of computer engineering and computer science at Vanderbilt University.

"We are honored and excited to have been selected by NSF as one of the pilot alliances for the NSF INCLUDES program," said Jenda. "This award, with Auburn as the lead institution, is important because it will allow us to continue the progress we have made through our NSF Alabama Alliance for Students with Disabilities in STEM over the last seven years, and expand these efforts so that more students across the Southeast, and eventually the whole nation, can benefit from the program."

Jenda's award will allow him and his team of colleagues to pilot their work at 16 additional institutions, for a total of 21 participating colleges and universities in six states and Washington, D.C.

The goals of the South East Alliance for Persons with Disabilities in STEM include: increasing the quality and quantity of persons with disabilities completing associate, undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM disciplines and entering the STEM workforce, especially among minorities, veterans and women; increasing the quality and quantity of post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty with disabilities in STEM fields; improving academic performance of students with disabilities in secondary level science and mathematics courses; enhancing communication and collaboration among post-secondary institutions, industry, government, national labs and community in addressing the education of students with disabilities in STEM disciplines; and assessing the program's activities to understand what works to support the matriculation and retention of STEM students with disabilities in science, followed by broad dissemination through workshops, conference presentations, webinars and peer-reviewed publications.

"Ours was the only project selected for funding that focuses on persons with disabilities, so this truly sets us apart as a leader in this area of STEM education," said Jenda. "We are looking forward to working with our partner institutions across the Southeast to impact students and faculty with disabilities, a group that is traditionally underserved in STEM, and make positive contributions toward their persistence and success in STEM fields."

NSF listed the INCLUDES program as one of its 10 Big Ideas for Future Investments (see https://www.nsf.gov/about/congress/reports/nsf_big_ideas.pdf). In the nearly seven decades since it was founded, NSF has played a critical role in establishing U.S. leadership in science and engineering. The list of 10 Big Ideas for Future Investments was generated as a means of envisioning the future of NSF, a future that includes a long-term research agenda that will ensure future generations continue to reap the benefits of fundamental science and engineering research.

"For more than six decades, NSF has funded the development of STEM talent, with the goals of furthering scientific discovery and ensuring the nation's security, economy and ability to innovate," NSF Director France Córdova said. "NSF INCLUDES aims to broaden participation in STEM by reaching populations traditionally underserved in science and engineering. I'm gratified to see such a strong start to this program, which we hope will be an enduring investment in our nation's future in scientific discovery and technological innovation."

Jenda and his team of researchers will directly contribute to the effort initiated through the NSF INCLUDES program and work toward improved academic and social support for students with disabilities in STEM majors by providing increased peer and faculty mentoring, research internships, group meetings, annual conferences, and student support organizations. The Auburn University team includes Ash Abebe, professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Caroline Dunn, Humana-Germany-Sherman Distinguished Professor in the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation and Counseling, Daniela Marghitu, Comp 1000 coordinator in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, and Alan Wilson, associate professor in the School of Fisheries and Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences.

"I'm delighted that this award from the NSF INCLUDES program will allow Dr. Jenda and his colleagues to expand upon their important work to improve opportunities in STEM education for students with disabilities," said John Mason, Auburn University vice president for research and economic development. "And the fact that the alliance will focus on bringing a more diverse population of disabled persons into the STEM workforce makes this a 'win-win' situation for both the individuals involved and the region as a whole," he added.

For more information on the South East Alliance for Persons with Disabilities in STEM, go to https://cws.auburn.edu/apspi/pm/includes or send an email to includes@auburn.edu. For more information on the NSF INCLUDES program, go to https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/nsfincludes/index.jsp.

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