7.1 Overview

Last updated on 2021/08/18 by Court

7.1.1 Why Are Diversity and a Culture of Inclusion Important in ERCs?

Since the inception of NSF Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) in 1985, the incorporation of diversity efforts has been a focus. However, the evolution of emphases and practices has been different both across individual ERCs and across time, as well as within the overall ERC Program itself. The early ERCs were established with the understanding that increased participation of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds would be essential for the development of a competitive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce in the U.S. It was also recognized that diversity of participation would be important for ERCs to produce the most innovative, creative, and robust solutions to the complex challenges facing our global society. Over time, it was recognized that in addition to diversity of ERC participants, a culture of inclusion—an ERC climate that accepts, values, and recognizes as a strength the differences among all participants—is required to realize the full potential of ERCs.

7.1.2 Evolution of the Focus on Diversity in ERCs

Early ERCs focused mainly on increasing the numbers of individuals who share identity characteristics with those who have been historically and systemically excluded from participating in similar STEM efforts. Across the generations of ERC calls for proposals, there has been an increasing emphasis on understanding and improving the culture of the center organization and creating ERCs as spaces where diverse communities of STEM professionals and students could thrive. By the second “class” (award year) of third-generation (Gen-3) ERCs, awarded in 2011, the emphasis was explicitly on not viewing diversity efforts as simply increasing headcounts of ERC participants from underrepresented groups, but as an expectation that ERCs will promote Diversity and a Culture of Inclusion (DCI).

In 2017, at the request of NSF, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) issued A New Vision for Center-based Research, a report that explored the future of center-based engineering research, the skills needed for effective center leadership, and opportunities to enhance engineering education through the centers. In 2019, an NSF ERC working group considering the NASEM report recommended that NSF insist that convergent1 engineering research centers continue to build upon the success of ERCs in expanding the diversity of the engineering workforce. The NASEM Report included the finding that “The goal of expanding diversity in science and engineering is not only good for the creativity and productivity of research teams, it is good for expanding the capacity of the United States to innovate and compete.” Accordingly, the emphasis on strengthening the culture of inclusion is very visible in the refined calls for Gen-4 ERCs, beginning in 2020.

In early 2021 with input from existing ERC DCI Directors, the NSF ERC Program issued a Statement on Diversity and Culture of Inclusion that: (i) established clear definitions for diversity and a culture of inclusion, (ii) explained the importance of the DCI Director’s role in an ERC, (iii) outlined high-level goals for ERC DCI programs, and (iv) listed suggested processes ERCs can implement to demonstrate a strong culture of inclusion. The manner in which achieving these goals is carried out still remains at the discretion of the individual ERCs, with input from NSF site visit teams and ERC advisory boards. However, the availability of the definitions greatly clarifies the expectations of NSF and supports the transformational change work of ERC DCI professionals. The statement is reproduced in full within this chapter in Section 7.1.4.

It is important to note that, as with diversity efforts in all types of organizations, there was a time when the responsibility for diversity efforts often fell to one person within the organization. The 2021 definitions and expectations clearly move the thinking and expectations to that of an integrated model. In this integrated model, all members of the ERC’s leadership team, faculty, and staff are responsible for contributing to promoting and facilitating a culture of inclusion within ERCs. In this new paradigm, all ERC participants, at all levels, are expected to be aware of and participate in ERC DCI efforts. Furthermore, they are trained on DCI topics, and may even have defined DCI roles or responsibilities. Evolution of DCI Terms

Like the work itself, the language of DCI is ever evolving. Terms and phrases such as “diversity,” “diversity and inclusion,” “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and “broadening participation” have evolved over time, with “culture of inclusion” added more recently. While some terms may be common knowledge and heard regularly in casual conversation, there are many related terms and concepts that may not be familiar. DCI personnel are encouraged to read DCI literature to continually update and add nuance to their working knowledge of these terms. New Features of Gen-4 ERCs

While DCI has long been a key facet of ERCs, the Gen-4 ERC framework further emphasizes Diversity and Culture of Inclusion as one of an ERC’s four foundational components, alongside Convergent Research, Engineering Workforce Development, and Innovation Ecosystem (see Figure 1 in the solicitation; and NSF’s October 2020 orientation presentation on DCI to new Gen-4 ERCs). In the mid-1980s, ERCs were built on a “three-legged stool” of research, education, and technology transfer—with “diversity” being generally understood as a component of ERC education programs. The foundation of research, education, and technology transfer has evolved over time with DCI now coequal with these three components.

7.1.3 The Data: ERCs vis-a-vis National Averages

NSF requires ERCs to both report on headcounts within their organizations and benchmark those headcounts against national engineering averages and other ERC averages. Specifically, data on the participation within leadership, faculty, postdocs, undergraduates, and graduate students are captured across several demographic categories (e.g., Women, Underrepresented Racial Minorities, Hispanics/Latinos, and Persons with Disabilities). Definitions are available for each of these groups in Section NSF expects ERCs to recruit and retain researchers and participants at levels that exceed national averages for underrepresented groups (across gender, race, ethnicity, and disability status) across all ERC partner institutions.

Overall diversity of ERC participants has increased over time and has historically exceeded national averages at all levels and for each demographic category reported. While these data imply that ERC efforts are impacting participation from groups historically underrepresented in STEM, it remains clear that there is still significant work to be done to increase representation. It is also important to ensure that ERCs remain ever-evolving in their efforts to establish ERCs as spaces in which individuals who share identity characteristics with those who have been systemically excluded from participating in STEM efforts want to work and develop academically, professionally, and personally.

7.1.4 NSF ERC Program Statement on DCI

The 2021 NSF ERC Program Statement on DCI provides foundational information and framing for ERC leaders and DCI personnel. It is available for download via the ERC Program website, reproduced in full within this section, and referenced throughout this chapter.

“In an effort to provide greater clarity among NSF program directors, and ERC leadership and personnel regarding expectations for ERC Diversity and Culture of Inclusion programs, the ERC team is issuing the following common definitions and responsibilities for ensuring access and opportunity for success for all ERC participants.

What do we mean by diversity? Diversity is defined as a spectrum of human differences, such as social, ethnic, and gender backgrounds. The ERC Program supports broadening participation in groups that historically have been underrepresented in STEM due to marginalizing and discriminatory practices. Although there are many ways that diversity can be understood and many different facets to individuals’ identity, the ERC program is primarily focused on broadening participation with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic status, veterans, and first-generation students. The ERC program promotes diversity across all participating institutions and across all levels of ERC participation, including leadership, faculty, staff, postdocs, and students, as diverse teams have greater potential for impact and innovation (AlShebli, Rahwan, & Woon, 2018; Freeman & Huang, 2014; Nielsen et al., 2017).

What do we mean by culture of inclusion? The ERC program defines a culture of inclusion as an environment in which all members feel valued and welcomed, creatively contribute, and gain respect and mutual benefit from participating. A culture of inclusion also requires accessibility practices, such as those that ensure facility, technology, and activity access for individuals with a wide range of disabilities. A culture of inclusion is a necessary foundation for effective teaming (National Research Council, 2015). In addition to forming a diverse team, the culture of the ERC and teams within the ERC should support convergence through inclusive collaboration.

Why is the ERC Diversity Director or equivalent position important? All ERC personnel have a responsibility to contribute to a culture of inclusion. To develop and lead the ERC’s strategic approach to Diversity and Culture of Inclusion, the role of the ERC Diversity Director is critical. This includes having responsibility, authority, and accountability to set and achieve diversity goals and cultivate a culture of inclusion. The Diversity Director must have the ability to impact budget decisions and be provided the resources needed to accomplish diversity and culture of inclusion goals. We suggest this person be a part of the leadership team, and the person in this role must interact with research thrust leads and industry representatives, as well as education and workforce development personnel. Clearly, the person selected for this role must have demonstrated knowledge and expertise in broadening participation.

What are the high-level goals of the ERC DCI program? Since a major goal of the ERC program is to train a domestic workforce, the majority of ERC participants should be US citizens or permanent residents within categories of faculty, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students. The ERC program also values the diversity contributed from international perspectives in achieving ERC goals. The ERC program strives for ERC participation that is representative of the diversity of the national population. ERCs strive to exceed national engineering average levels of participation for underrepresented groups defined by gender, race, ethnicity, and disability status across all ERC partner institutions.

What processes can ERCs implement to demonstrate strong cultures of inclusion? ERCs can demonstrate continually fostering a strong culture of inclusion by:

  • Demonstrating a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion from the leadership team

  • Balancing shared accountability so that the ERC Diversity Director is not solely responsible for accomplishing the diversity goals or the culture of inclusion goals

  • Applying evidence-based universal/inclusive design and accommodation practices to ensure that all activities and resources are accessible to and inclusive of individuals with a broad range of characteristics, including disabilities

  • Maintaining a transparent living strategic plan where goals and objectives align with institutional initiatives, and are revised on a regular basis, programmatic elements are aligned with goals, and evaluative data is fed back into program goals and implementation

  • Setting a shared vision with common expectations and goals among all ERC personnel

  • Providing safe and secure communication channels for underserved voices

  • Establishing clear codes of conduct for participating in the ERC, including team interaction and meeting.

  • Engaging partners designed to reinforce ERC culture of inclusion including industry partners, university groups, professional societies, and other stakeholders

  • Onboarding new ERC personnel and partners to establish clear expectations and shared values

  • Offering on-going trainings and resources to reinforce expectations for individual conduct and build knowledge, skills, and attitudes in key areas of diversity and inclusion

  • Providing opportunities for mentorship among all ERC personnel (multi-directional)

  • Communicating a clear message of the ERC’s culture of inclusion and values and attitudes regarding diversity, across multiple formats and media

  • Creating systems for rewarding and recognizing contributions that reinforce the ERC’s culture of inclusion

  • Implementing an assessment strategy with SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) metrics

  • Retaining both diverse students through completion of degrees and staff and faculty within the ERC with opportunities for mutual benefit that increase the diversity of the ERC.

These listed approaches are intended to serve as suggestions for processes that ERCs may implement as part of an intentional culture of inclusion and are not to be construed as comprehensive, or a recipe for success. ERCs should adopt and adapt those approaches that best align with institutional contexts and resources, and demonstrate progress toward meeting Center goals and objectives.”

7.1.5 DCI Community of Practice

ERC DCI Directors and personnel have formed a Community of Practice that meets virtually on a monthly basis and in-person at ERC Biennial Meetings. They also conduct focused workshops to create connections, discuss and disseminate DCI strategies and systems, and explore DCI collaborations across ERCs. The Community maintains a list of ERC DCI personnel as well as a nanoHUB focus group. If you are an ERC DCI professional who wants to be added to the list or the nanoHUB focus group, please ask your DCI Director or NSF Program Officer to connect you.

Examples of meeting topics and workshops from the ERC DCI Community of Practice include:

  • Resources and programs related to mental health and well-being as they relate to fostering a culture of inclusion within ERCs

  • Examples, frameworks, and strategies to encourage and/or support student-led and/or Student Leadership Council-led DCI initiatives

  • Assessment and evaluation strategies, reporting, systems for DCI programs

  • “Bias Busting Across the Center: A Model to Interrupt Bias and Promote Inclusion” train-the-trainer workshop offered by NASCENT for adoption of workshop curriculum by other ERCs

  • Overview and discussion of resources from AccessERC designed to engage people with disabilities in NSF-funded ERCs

  • Overview of CNT’s partnership with Theater for Change UW (University of Washington) to highlight instances of bias and oppression, stereotypes, and discrimination and to role play and practice interventions and difficult conversations.

Outcomes from the ERC DCI Community of Practice include cross-ERC collaborations and reduced duplication of efforts through shared programming and resources. For example, a consortium of three ERCs obtained an NSF supplement to support a cross-ERC evaluation study that will provide the community with customizable, adaptable, consistent, shared instruments.

In addition to the ERC DCI Community of Practice, ERC DCI Directors and personnel often participate in other institutional, regional, national, or international organizations and conferences where DCI research and practices are disseminated. Examples include:

1 Convergent research is defined by NSF as “High-risk/high-payoff research ideas and discovery that pushes the frontiers of engineering knowledge; ERC convergent research is a deeply collaborative and cross/transdisciplinary effort that results in positive societal impact.”