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Friday May 7th

Combatting lack of diversity in STEM fields means boot camp and virtual degree programs

In 2016, Georgetown University published a study showing mass underrepresentation of black students in lucrative STEM majors, but the best solution offered was “careful career planning.” 

At UNC-Chapel Hill, professor Javed Mostafa has a plan. 

Mostafa’s program is looking to increase the mere 10 percent of black degree-seekers who choose health fields by recruiting students at North Carolina HBCUs for a seven-week STEM boot camp. 

In August, an extension of the Carolina Health Informatics Program received funding from the United Health Foundation to begin Extensible Network-Accessible Biomedical & Health Informatics Lifelong learning Environment, or ENABLE. The program will kick off its first summer boot camp on May 17, and applications are open until March 31. 

The program aims to diversify the field of health and biomedical informatics by recruiting from North Carolina black universities, such as North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Bennett College. Professor Javed Mostafa, the program director, wants to expose undergraduate students to the STEM field through the summer residential experience at UNC-CH. His position in the professional community showed him the need for diversity in a racially and socioeconomically monogamous field, dominated by 71 percent white degree-holders.

“We want to broaden the field by attracting students from different backgrounds and opening up waves and channels for these students to learn from us and for us to learn from them,” Mostafa said. 

Mostafa works with graduate students such as Heejun Kim and Michael Ortiz to develop the curriculum for the boot camp, which will accept only six students. Ortiz came to assist with communication and teaching and will work as a teaching assistant at the boot camp.

“My role is to create a series of online tutorials motivated by the Khan Academy approach using the marker board explaining the theory and appropriating a little bit of programming,” Ortiz said. “In the summer boot camp, we’ll bring in the younger generation who have little exposure and introduce them to STEM.”

Ortiz and Kim both are passionate about broadening audiences learning about STEM concerning health and bioinformatics. Kim is from South Korea, and has an affinity for increased diversity in the program and professional field. Ortiz came to college at 23 years old after spending some time in the baseball minor leagues and was surprised by the how much he learned.

“I realized all of these possibilities in STEM, and it was a moment of enlightenment,” Ortiz said. “Being able to learn about tools at our disposal and to be able to answer questions is really important, and I want to get [campers] to feel that same excitement.”

While the boot camp is one of the more prominent features of ENABLE, Mostafa is also hoping to launch an online masters program in biomedical and health informatics. He aims to diversify the health workforce not only through race, but through socioeconomic backgrounds that prohibit potential degree seekers from attending residential colleges.

“We are also hopeful the online program would diversify the educational workforce,” Mostafa said. “We have a lot of interest from professionals who are potential students, but they find it hard to engage in our residential program

Mostafa and his team have dreams to expand the program into one that could support a complete online masters program and allow the boot camp to expand in population size.

university@dailytarheel.com 

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