Changing STEM Representation Trends Through the Philadelphia AMP Alliance
When Stephen Cox started as an undergraduate student at Drexel University (then called the Drexel Institute of Technology) in 1969, it was “sparsely populated” with minority students like him, he says.
Then, after receiving his BS in physics and atmospheric science in 1974 and his MS in biophysics and biomedical engineering (both from Drexel) in 1976, Cox left Drexel and jumped into an industry career with positions at General Electric and Boeing. There, he saw a similar trend — very few people of color were operating alongside him in these scientific positions and venues.
So in the early ’90s, Cox started working to reverse this trend, and he had help. The National Science Foundation (NSF) wanted to establish multi-year, multi-million-dollar grants to support institutions and programming proven to increase the number of underrepresented students moving into STEM-related paths of study and, ultimately, careers.
In 1994, this funding and Cox’s work helped found the Greater Philadelphia Region Alliance for Minority Participation (Philadelphia AMP), which is part of the national, NSF-founded Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. Philadelphia AMP brought together nine higher-education institutions to work and share resources toward a common goal — to double the number of minority students receiving degrees in STEM disciplines over the next five years — as this NSF-funded alliance model had already proven successful in doing so in additional areas of the country.
And in that five-year time frame, Philadelphia AMP had more than achieved the goal, and Cox had also been invited to headquarter the alliance at his alma mater. He is now co-principal investigator and project director of Philadelphia AMP, leading the alliance alongside Nina Henderson Provost Paul Jensen, PhD, and Aroutis Foster, PhD, an associate dean of Drexel’s School of Education.
“Because I knew of the impact of cooperative education, I thought that Drexel would be a good site to create the leadership of the initiative,” he said.
Now, the 27-year-old Philadelphia AMP Alliance continues to thrive at host institution Drexel and across partner institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Community College of Philadelphia, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, Lincoln University, the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Rowan University. The LSAMP model has also taken hold in all areas of the country, from Puerto Rico to Hawaii.
Each university in the Philadelphia Alliance supports its own programming, activities, research opportunities, academic coaching, mentorship and funding, and the institutions also support each other, all in an effort to sustain what is now the annual graduation of well over 1,000 minority students into STEM graduate and PhD programs or careers. This is compared to the just 200 graduating with STEM degrees back before the alliance began.
“As an alliance, we've been very successful in capturing the funding, but also providing the opportunities for students to succeed, who prior to this were not really looked at as a necessary outcome,” Cox said. “You know, it's easy to talk about being diverse, but the reality of diversity is how you produce a product and we've been able to do that successfully over a 26-year period, so much so that this year NSF has awarded us again a $3.2 million grant to continue this work from now through 2025.”
The continued work of Philadelphia AMP is both important and complex, and critical in current turbulent times, Cox said.
“We see right now, the country is in turmoil. Issues of race and ethnicity and gender are all things that are still issues 25, 30 years later,” he added. “That has not gone away in America.”
But despite all this complexity, how Drexel students get involved with LSAMP on an individual level is often quite simple.
For Jazmean Williams, a 2020 graduate with a BS in biomedical engineering, it started with a friend encouraging her to come to an LSAMP meeting while she was on campus summer term of her first year participating in the STAR Scholars program.
“Just hearing what some of the current students in the program were doing and how LSAMP had basically bolstered their research résumé and the different outreach programs that they were able to do, that just made me so excited,” Williams remembered. “So I was like, ‘OK, I'm going to join and I'm going to be involved,’ and I've been involved ever since.”
From that moment on, LSAMP became a very big part of Williams’ Drexel experience. Without it, she said many of the research opportunities she was able to do in undergrad wouldn’t have been possible, including the six-month research co-op in New Zealand she completed last year, and through which she solidified her goal of doing stem cell research as a career.
“Without LSAMP, I would have never been able to leave the ground,” Williams said. “[The program] was able to help pay for my plane ticket and also provided resources for finding housing.
“Because of that experience, I feel like it made my résumé a lot more attractive. It’s a great talking point, too. I'm able to just talk about the experience of living in a new country on my own and being involved within a new culture,” she continued. “It shows not only your flexibility, but your ability to adapt and ability to problem solve. So, yeah, it was just an awesome experience.”
For Julian Rath and Salamata Bah, it started with an email from Drexel-LSAMP Director Marisol Rodriguez Mergenthal, which arrived in their inbox at the right time, offering the right opportunity. Rath was having trouble back in March securing his first co-op opportunity due to complications caused by the pandemic. Then he found out that through LSAMP, he could take an online scientific computing course taught by scientists of the Brookhaven National Laboratory that was bound to help give him a leg up in his area of career interest, nuclear science. Better yet, he could get paid to take the course.
“There were literally no aspects of the opportunity that I could have ever considered turning down,” Rath, a pre-junior majoring in chemistry, said. “With the career that I'm planning on going into, I need as much experience and credibility as I can get. Taking a class with Brookhaven National Laboratory on how to actually use the programs utilized in the field should help me greatly in the future.”
Funded by a part-time stipend from LSAMP, Rath went on to complete a co-op position with the Peace Innovation Institute arranged by Joseph Hughes, PhD, and other College of Engineering faculty.
Bah, now a second-year computer science major, got involved with LSAMP during her first year when she saw an email about a research project in partnership with Cheyney University. LSAMP students from both institutions worked with faculty on annotating videos and collecting data centered around machine learning. Bah even had the opportunity to design the front end of an application the team wanted to create for the research.
Bah said this experience helped her be accepted and solidify a project for the STAR Scholars program this summer.
“I chose to do something related to machine learning because I found it so interesting,” she said.
Because of how much LSAMP helped shape their time at Drexel, all of these participants would encourage other eligible students to keep an eye out for emails about programming and get involved.
“I wouldn't be doing half the things that I've been doing over the past six months if I just never got the email and I never signed up for it,” Rath said. “It's only done good things for me, basically. It’s an opportunity just sitting there
“You never know which one of them will help you in your career or just build the network that will help you in the future,” Bah added.
Williams specifically encouraged eligible students to get involved early on in their Drexel career like she did, whether they’re students who hit the ground running or take more time to adjust.
“It's really great to have someone who's like a cheerleader, who's willing to cheer you on and make sure that you're getting the resources that you need, getting involved in the things that you need to be involved in, and also just providing mental health advice and academic advice,” she said. “Even if you're not a student who's ready to just take on the world right once you step on the campus, it's good to have someone who's willing to guide you through that process and to also have other students and other upperclassmen who've been where you've been and who can also guide you through that process as well.”
Through the years, Cox has enjoyed hearing from students how much the LSAMP program at their institution or the Philadelphia AMP Alliance as a whole benefitted their personal growth and development.
“Many of them attribute their success in their life — now, many of them have families and children — that it had to do with working with me, because I told them that they could do anything they wanted to do if they really invested themselves in believing that they could do it,” he said. “Many times, while I could say that I was the catalyst for their success, the reality is they were the raw material that just needed some encouragement.”
Cox will be taking the Philadelphia AMP’s Phase VI grant period, which will carry the alliance through 2025 and 30 years of existence, to start grooming a predecessor to take over his role and continue with this important work.
“The reality is I could probably do this forever because I really enjoy what I do, but I will be 72 in October of this year,” he said. “In order to ensure the same kind of energy and excitement about this continues, I need to groom some other people.”
All in all, he was happy to play a part in reversing the trends he saw as a student 50 years ago, and help students not unlike himself over the past 25 years find success, motivation and community.
“At one of our graduation sequences, as the students were walking across stage, I overheard [the late Drexel University President Constantine Papadakis] say, ‘These are Steve Cox’s kids,’” he remembered. “For me, that kind of summed it up, because there are so many students that I invested my knowledge, my background in industry, my technical capacity and my belief that all students can learn, particularly underrepresented students, if they are given the opportunity.”
To find out more about Drexel-LSAMP participation and programming, please contact the Director Marisol Rodriguez Mergenthal at firstname.lastname@example.org.