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RIT wins NSF grant to transform physics graduate education admissions and retention

January 18, 2017

A Rochester Institute of Technology professor won funding from the National Science Foundation to develop an inclusive approach to physics graduate education admission and retention of traditionally underrepresented U.S. citizens.

Casey Miller, associate professor and director of RIT's materials science and engineering graduate program, is collaborating with the American Physical Society on a $428,022 NSF Research Traineeship award in Innovations in Graduate Education to increase diversity and physics Ph.D. completion rates among women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans.

The future needs of the U.S. technological workforce depend on cultivating the domestic talent pool and groups underrepresented in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM disciplines, Miller said.

"Transitioning underrepresented students to graduate studies is key, but the majority of STEM Ph.D. programs are failing in this regard," he said.

Miller is exploring interventions that address graduate STEM education inclusion at both the admission and retention phases with Scott Franklin, professor, and Ben Zwickl, assistant professor, in RIT's School of Physics and Astronomy.

The project will assess faculty attitudes toward diversity, develop assessments with psychologists to measure non-science skills essential for completing a physics Ph.D.--such as grit and perseverance--and design training materials to encourage more inclusive practices by admissions committees. Workshops for participating faculty at partnering programs at RIT, University of Central Florida and University of Denver--as well as at American Physical Society meetings--will provide training in "holistic admissions" and proven support structures to help new graduate students succeed.

The workshop materials will result in an Admissions and Retention Faculty Training Program, which the American Physical Society will disseminate to higher education institutions across the country.

"The interventions are likely to be transferable to different fields," Miller said. "The project has the potential to revolutionize how STEM graduate admissions is carried out and to increase completion rates of U.S. citizens in STEM Ph.D. programs."

Miller's efforts to transform higher education admission and retention practices to reflect a shifting population resulted in another recent NSF-funded collaboration with the American Physical Society. The NSF program INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) seeks to build a national network for access and inclusion in physics graduate education.
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Rochester Institute of Technology

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