Students Propose Innovative Ideas to Change Graduate Education

Earlier this summer, the National Science Foundation announced the winners of its Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge, the inaugural student challenge that invited graduate students to submit ideas on how to improve graduate education.

Graduate education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is at a crossroads. Several recent reports have described a need to change graduate education to better prepare students for modern day challenges and for a range of career options in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Through the Innovation in Graduate Education challenge, the NSF asked the graduate students to submit innovative ideas for graduate education that would prepare them for tomorrow’s opportunities and challenges. Ideas focused on students, faculty, departments, institutions, professional societies, and/or Federal agencies. The students were asked to identify an issue in graduate education and to propose a solution.

NSF received over 500 entries from more than 700 STEM graduate students from across the country. The students represented 155 universities or institutions from 47 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. 

The winning entries addressed topics such as transparency in graduate education, science-communication skills training, retention of women in science fields, career awareness and preparation, community engagement, and mentorship. The students’ entries proposed innovative approaches to address these issues, often including grass roots efforts by graduate students themselves, to make changes in the STEM graduate experience.

The first prize was awarded to PhD candidate Kevin Disotell, of Ohio State University, whose entry—Opening the Doors of STEM Graduate Education: A Collaborative, Web-Based Approach to Unlocking Student Pathways—proposed a comprehensive online portal to provide advisor matching, degree management tools, career development resources, and a publicly accessible forum for sharing student research.

Students from the University of Georgia, led by Dara Satterfield, one of the second place teams, proposed a student-led Equality Ambassadors program to improve gender-equity in STEM fields. The Equality Ambassadors are graduate students selected to serve as policy and perception changers within their institutions by facilitating dialogue on women in science issues among students, faculty, and university leadership.

A team of students from the University of Chicago, led by Sebastian Heilpern, won a third place prize for their idea to foster STEM graduate-student engagement with real-world challenges through “External Graduate Assistantships.” In these assistantships, graduate students work with government, industry, non-profit, and private organizations to apply their research expertise to societal challenges from multiple professional perspectives. At the same time, the students gain valuable career preparation outside the academic setting concurrently with their graduate training.

The 53 top scoring entries were eligible for community choice voting. Over 3000 votes were cast. The community choice winners Elyse Aurbach and Katherine Prater, from the University of Michigan, proposed a program called RELATE: Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement, which includes science-communication skills training and service-oriented public engagement of scientists in local communities. The students proposed public science discussions in which students introduce scientific concepts and “facilitate unpretentious, spontaneous conversation” with community members.

We applaud this work and look forward to NSF’s continued engagement with STEM students in an ongoing national dialogue about STEM graduate education.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at OSTP

Robbie Barbero is an AAAS Fellow at OSTP

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