21 January 2022

Building Community for Astronomers at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions

Joseph Ribaudo Providence College

Over the last few decades, the collective astronomy community has made a concerted effort to establish policies and best practices that foster a more inclusive and supportive professional environment for astronomers from all backgrounds, identities, and career trajectories. In doing so, it has become clear there is a need within the community to better support astronomers who pursue careers at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs), where a substantive component of the job often consists of providing research mentoring and training to undergraduate students.

What exactly is a PUI? The National Science Foundation (NSF) defines PUIs as accredited colleges and universities (including two-year community colleges) that award Associate’s degrees, Bachelor’s degrees, and/or Master’s degrees in NSF-supported fields, but have awarded 20 or fewer PhD/DSc degrees during the combined previous two academic years. Since colleges and universities awarding degrees across the mentioned range can vary dramatically from one to another, there is no quintessential PUI. PUIs are incredibly diverse with respect to size, mission, and student demographics, but essentially all PUIs have one thing in common: PUIs place a strong emphasis on the undergraduate learning and research experience.

Astronomers working at PUIs find themselves in an ideal position to impact the next generation of astronomers. In 2017, over 90% of the 4,300 accredited post-secondary institutions were non-PhD-granting institutions and over two-thirds of the nearly 20 million students enrolled in post-secondary education did so at these schools.1 PUIs serve a broad range of student demographics, with many mission-driven PUIs focused on underserved populations. PUI enrollments are also heavily weighted towards first-generation college students, particularly at two-year institutions.2 In addition, providing mentoring and research experiences for undergraduate students is a primary workload component for many PUI-affiliated astronomers. As noted here, on a per capita basis several PUIs rank in the top ten for sending students to PhD programs (in physics) and over half of the top fifty institutions are PUIs.

Given the importance of PUIs within the higher education landscape and the distinct challenges and opportunities faced by astronomers working at PUIs, I was motivated to initiate a white paper to explore the role of PUIs in the astronomy community for the Astro2020 decadal survey. The community response to the white paper effort was incredible, with feedback and contributions from dozens of astronomers and over 40 co-signees. You can find the entire paper online, but the recommendations to the professional astronomy community, put forth in the paper, are worth highlighting here:

  • The Decadal Survey: Address the significant underrepresentation of PUI faculty membership on decadal panels and committees. Funding course releases for PUI faculty may be one way to improve participation.
  • Teaching and Pedagogy: Provide greater opportunities for teaching courses and teacher  training/mentoring for graduate students who aspire to seek faculty positions at PUIs (similar to the research mentoring of a PhD program).
  • Research Support: Increase the number of targeted grant programs for faculty at PUIs. Consider extending these PUI-awards for up to five years, to allow for sustainable projects with undergraduate student research participation. Foster programs that allow PUI faculty to interact with or mentor graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
  • PUI-Focused Collaborations: Encourage and financially support the development of large-scale, long-duration research collaborations that leverage the contributions of PUI affiliates (faculty and students). See the Astro2020 white paper by Koopmann et al.: Integrating Undergraduate Research and Faculty Development in a Legacy Astronomy Research Project, which is also highlighted in this previous AAS Education blog post.
  • Regional Astronomy: Increase the number of regional astronomy associations and provide financial and logistical support for the establishment of regularly held regional meetings.
  • Scholarship and Career Assessment: Establish a robust assessment procedure to examine the scholarly research contributions made by PUI affiliates (publications and conference presentations). Expand current career assessment work to include an analysis of astronomers at PUIs. Create formal AAS working groups and committees to pursue PUI-related assessments.
Astronomical Society of New York
Left: A student presents their research poster at a meeting of the Astronomical Society of New York. Right: A conference photo from the 50th Anniversary Meeting of the Astronomical Society of New York, held in July 2018 at the American Museum of Natural History.

While preparing for the white paper, the need for community building and networking amongst the PUI-affiliated astronomers became apparent (going forward I will call this subset of the broader astronomy community the AstroPUI community). In the fall of 2019, I applied for and was awarded an AAS Education and Professional Development Grant to hold a meeting for PUI astronomers, with the specific intent to build community and to initiate efforts to identify and realize the resources most needed by the AstroPUI community. Initially, the meeting, Building Community for Astronomers at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions, was planned to take place on the Providence College campus in the summer of 2020. The COVID pandemic put the meeting on hold and our organizing committee waited to see if an in-person meeting could possibly take place in 2021. By early 2021 it was clear that the only way to guarantee the meeting would happen in 2021 was to move the event online. For a variety of reasons, moving the meeting online meant reimagining the meeting structure and duration. We settled on a 1-day, 4-hour event to be held on 5 August 2021. We had over 75 astronomers register for the event (and over 60 in attendance). Given the emphasis on building community, we structured the event to allow for attendees to meet and discuss in small groups for the majority of the meeting. All of the meeting discussions have been anonymized and are available for viewing here.

The biggest, and most encouraging, takeaway from the meeting was the overwhelming sentiment that an AstroPUI community/network, coupled with relevant resources and infrastructure, would be incredibly valuable for the entire astronomy community. This naturally led to discussions focused on how to build out an AstroPUI network and maintain interest and participation within the community. Part of the network-building plan included a special session at the recently-canceled AAS meeting in Salt Lake City, where several of the action items from the 2021 summer AstroPUI meeting were to be discussed and hopefully initiated. Given the fortuitous timing of this blog post, we want to share these action items now and provide an opportunity for the broader astronomy community to join in the effort to build up the resources and support structures for the AstroPUI community. Below are several of the initiatives that were suggested, or started, at the AstroPUI meeting.

  • AstroPUI Community Hub: As part of the 2021 summer meeting, an AstroPUI Slack channel was established. The workspace was relatively active during the meeting, but admittedly has fallen silent in the past few months. We are hoping to reinvigorate the workspace in the coming weeks and anticipate this blog post will assist in that effort. The vision is for the AstroPUI Slack to be the first place you go to connect with the AstroPUI community. If you would like to join the AstroPUI Slack, fill out this form.
  • AstroPUI Resource Hub: During the 2021 summer meeting, several requests were made to create a hub where members could share various resources related to teaching, research mentoring, observing facilities, and collaborations, among others. The simplest (and most inelegant) solution is a shared Google Drive, which has been started here.
  • AstroPUI Community Working Group: During the 2021 summer meeting (and the four months following), it has become clear that building and maintaining the AstroPUI community requires the efforts of a small core group. If you are interested in joining a leadership group within the AstroPUI community to realize ongoing initiatives and plan future activities, submit this interest form online.
  • Regular AstroPUI Meetings: The 2021 half-day summer meeting was an important first step in building the AstroPUI community and there have been numerous requests for regular remote gatherings in the future. If you would like to have input on the timing, structure, and/or focus of these meetings, please provide that information on the AstroPUI Community Leadership Group form.

While these action items are not enough by themselves to maintain a vibrant AstroPUI community, they are an exciting and necessary start. The reality is that many astronomers in the AstroPUI community are often physically (and at times professionally) isolated from the broader astronomy community. The past two years, while exacerbating the isolation in many ways, has allowed many of us to develop comfort and familiarity with online and remote collaboration methodologies. Our hope is that we can leverage this silver lining to continue to build an AstroPUI community and network that provides the support structures necessary for astronomers to thrive in all aspects of the profession, regardless of career stage or trajectory.

If interested, please join our efforts — all are welcome!

1. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_317.40.asp
2. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018009.pdf