U-M receives federal grant to engage more Indigenous, rural, and underserved students in physics

The University of Michigan (U-M) has received a U.S. Department of Energy grant to recruit more diverse students to study physics.
The $1.125 million Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce (RENEW) grant will be split between U-M, Black Hills State University in South Dakota, and Benedictine University in Illinois. The program will be funded for three years and will specifically focus on students from Native American, rural, and underserved urban backgrounds.
Bjoern Penning, U-M associate professor of physics and principal investigator of the grant, notes that the other two universities that received funding are located relatively close to national laboratories. Black Hills State is near Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) and Benedictine is near Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, providing prime opportunities for research.
According to Penning, the grant will function as a kind of exchange. A U-M graduate student stationed at SURF will lead a team of undergraduates from Black Hills State and Benedictine as they conduct research. Undergraduates from the collaborating schools will also be brought to U-M, where they'll gain experience writing papers, using lab equipment, and running experiments.
Penning observes that the academic world, as it currently stands, favors a certain hierarchy, with students from certain undergraduate schools gaining automatic acceptance from the graduate schools of their choice.
"If you're coming from Harvard or [the] University of Michigan or Yale, you don't have to be a genius — you're going to be fine, right?" he says. "And if you come from a small place, that's why we call them under-resourced; even if you have a great GPA, you're probably ending [up] in the rejection pile."
Penning hopes his program will contribute to a wider change by helping Black Hills State and Benedictine develop stronger track records in science, and helping undergrads develop the skills they need to succeed.
"We're collecting a lot of fantastic people," Penning says. "…When you access more talent, then you're getting better students, and this is a big, big help for us also in performing our research."

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Bjoern Penning photo courtesy of Bjoern Penning. Brianna Mount photo courtesy of Black Hills State University.
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