Written by Kristen Kusek, Former Communications Director for USF CMS
Last year NSF launched a two-year pilot program called All-ABOARD, which stands for “Alliance-Building Offshore to Achieve Resilience and Diversity.” The goal of this program, hosted by Columbia University, is to advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) initiatives in STEM fields—especially the geosciences, which are one of the least racially diverse fields of science.
A cross-departmental USF team was one of four groups chosen nationwide to participate. They recently returned from an intense, four-day, 12-hours-a-day workshop -- a culminating event involving all four teams that built upon lessons learned in online training webinars and workshops held last year.
“This program is timely and aligns well with our strategic goals and USF’s Principles of Community,” said Tom Frazer, dean of the USF College of Marine Science. “We are committed to improving diversity in the College and recognize that we still have a lot of work to do.”
Due to the pandemic, instead of the hoped-for workshop approach – to foster authentic conversations amongst the group about JEDI challenges while on a research ship sailing the high seas from Puerto Rico to Woods Hole, Massachusetts – the teams gathered at an isolated resort in landlocked Center Hill Lake, Tennessee, and they boarded a pontoon boat.
“This environment provided an isolated, immersive experience for the workshop groups to team-build and action plan,” said CMS professor Brad Rosenheim.
It didn’t matter that the boat was surrounded by freshwater smallmouth bass instead of salty sailfish, or that the shoreline wasn’t that hard to see in the distance. There were still some details of the experience that sound familiar to those who have experienced shipboard research cruises: the food was indulgent, and authentic conversations were aplenty.
“It was great to get away and sit down together as a cross-generational team (administrative to grad student) in an atmosphere that was conducive to honest, authentic conversations,” said graduate student April Ellis, who joined Rosenheim and diversity coordinator and instructor Ana Arellano from the CMS for the experience. Additional USF team members were Ruthmae Sears, Associate Professor of Mathematics Education, and anthropology graduate student Kris-An Hinds.
“Plus, the homestyle five-course meals provided throughout the experience were amazing,” said Ellis, who recalled a flourless chocolate tart and whipped cream-loaded pancakes as top favorites. “As a grad student I just wanted to shovel it all in.”
In addition to the pontoon experiences, the teams enjoyed adventurous obstacle course exercises and conversations run by facilitators from Columbia University, University of Pittsburgh, and BCS Associates designed to foster increased understanding of what it means to advance JEDI initiatives.
“We learned that we unconsciously do ‘us versus them’ in pretty much everything we do,” said Ellis.
“Bottom line: it’s hard work,” said Arellano, “and we need to learn to look at things differently – through the lens of the whole person, and the whole person’s story. When we do that, and when we have the courage to share our own narratives, we find commonalities with others much more easily.”
The USF team’s goal is to build upon its work to date and develop new strategies to increase the number of underrepresented students in ocean science, including road maps for improving student retention. A specific focus is to build a marine science-centered Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) at USF. For example, Arellano, who helped lead an REU in 2019, recalled that it took too long to pay the student participants for their participation.
“This is a problem we need to fix in time for our next REU,” she said. “Students can’t work for free.” While the problem sounds simple, it was a painful barrier to success, she said.
The other All-ABOARD teams were from West Virginia University, Coastal Carolina University, and Salisbury University.
“We are definitely not alone in trying to tackle these issues,” said Ellis.
Additionally, the USF team aims to scale up the All-ABOARD approach through work with the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO), said Rosenheim.
“FIO recognizes that students and early career scientists need peer-to-peer mentoring within cohorts as well as strong engagement by advisors who have shared experiences. We look forward to offering at-sea opportunities that make DEI the primary mission," said FIO director Monty Graham.
The USF team will work with various deans and campus leaders to implement their ideas, said Rosenheim. They will soon travel to the other All-ABOARD team schools – to better understand their challenges and successes – and in July, they will report back to the other institutions involved in this workshop with a progress update.
Enjoy some additional imagery from the USF All-Aboard team at Ragland Bottom in Sparta, TN.