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Faculty Research Spotlight

Omar López - Organization, Workforce, and Leadership Studies

Data Analysis Key to Graduating Hispanics in STEM at HSIs

hsi 10-year anniversary

“More Hispanics with STEM degrees will result in more voices that can purposefully engage in informed public discourse on science and technology policy, especially on issues relevant to the Hispanic community.”

Dr. Omar Lopez
Dr. Omar López

I grew up along the border in the south Texas Rio Grande Valley in one of the poorest U.S. counties. Daily observations on the effects of poverty for children and families left a definitive mark on my career decisions. My academic training includes the physical sciences, management, and education. This broad training prepared me to work in different sectors as an engineer, business consultant, and education policy researcher. While these occupations provided a way to make a living, the south Texas experiences provided the passion to seek a meaningful life where my work could focus on using transdisciplinary methodologies for solving some of the thorniest problems confronting society's most vulnerable populations.

During my faculty development leave in spring 2021, I came across a grant opportunity from the National Science Foundation (NSF) called Building Capacity in STEM Education Research (BCSER). This funding is designed to build an individual’s capacity to carry out high quality STEM education research and enhance the nation’s STEM education enterprise. My own research already included STEM learning environments, pathways to broadening participation in STEM fields, and STEM workforce development. So, I proposed a study where I could learn how to apply a methodology new to me in analyzing data to find Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) that were preparing Hispanics with STEM degrees efficiently and effectively for the STEM workforce.

No single strategy has been shown to contribute exclusively to HSIs graduating Hispanics with STEM degrees. Rather, the literature identifies a deluge of practices that researchers suggest are broadly relevant to student academic success. Two problems limit such studies. While they describe what practices HSIs should adopt, they do not prescribe how HSIs should apply them. Moreover, the researchers do not clearly identify practices leading to graduation for Hispanics with STEM degrees, casting doubt on these practices to transform less efficient HSIs into efficient ones. Solving these problems requires a different type of research, one that is purposeful and built on field-based studies of best practices at institutions that are empirically proven to be efficient at graduating Hispanics with STEM degrees.

nsf-logoI submitted the BCSER proposal aimed at building optimization models using data envelopment analysis (DEA), with data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) at the National Center for Education Statistics. The guiding research question is: “On what input measures do we select efficient HSIs to serve other institutions as possible benchmarks for program improvement in graduating Hispanics with STEM degrees?” Building on 20+ years of working with data for school improvement, my broader career trajectory is to use the project results to guide researchers toward best practices for turning less efficient HSIs into highly efficient ones that graduate Hispanics with STEM degrees for the U.S. academic, technical, and professional workforces.

The proposed project will notably advance knowledge within the field of HSI research. Of the HSI studies published between 1978 and 2021, none used DEA. Therefore, this work could sprout a new branch of HSI research. The project will also contribute new insights to the modest collection of current HSI graduation-related studies, most of which fail to include the STEM degree component. Finally, this project will potentially transform future HSI studies. Empirical results from the study could guide researchers to carefully consider and purposefully select the context of their research: within efficient or inefficient HSIs. This is important. From knowing such a context, researchers can then better define the conditions, assumptions, and limitations of their findings to effectively inform future research, policy, and practice.

As HSIs adopt best practices from future research, guided by the project’s DEA/IPEDS results, Hispanics graduating with STEM degrees for the U.S. academic, technical, and professional workforce will increase. Over time this growth will transform the American labor force into one that is more diverse, equitable, and highly competitive in the global economy. And because HSIs educate a high percentage of Hispanics from low-income families, it is more likely that those graduating with STEM degrees will improve their own health, well-being, and economic prospects. Scientific literacy is one of the benefits of earning a STEM degree. More Hispanics with STEM degrees will result in more voices that can purposefully engage in informed public discourse on science and technology policy, especially on issues relevant to the Hispanic community.

What I learned from developing this proposal is that reviewers first read the “Broader Impacts” statement to develop an initial impression of how the proposed research will contribute to society’s needs— if you pass that, then your proposal must meet other review criteria. Also, the program officers at NSF were of immense help in producing a competitive proposal. Although not directly verbalized, I felt like they wanted me to submit and receive the grant!