Serita Acker is working to expand two programs that help encourage diverse groups of students to study science, technology, engineering and math– and stick with it once they start.

Acker began working with the programs  PEER and WISE in 1995 and now serves as director over both organizations.

Serita Acker is fostering diversity as director of PEER and WISE.

Serita Acker is fostering diversity as director of PEER and WISE.

PEER stands for Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention and reaches out to minorities but welcomes all who would like to be involved. WISE is an acronym for Women In Science and Engineering.

The programs’ Freeman Hall offices were recently renovated, creating a comfortable place for students to gather and support each other. Some nearby space could become a study hall for PEER and WISE students, Acker said.

Both programs have new coordinators, Lisa Jackson for PEER and Nancy Parra for WISE. The new hires have freed up Acker to talk with industry representatives and do some big-picture planning, ensuring the programs expand and leave a lasting legacy.

“We are a safe haven– a place for underrepresented students to network,” she said. “My role is to expand our success, helping students get where they want to be in their majors and career paths into industry, government and academia.”

Clemson University President Jim Clements said increasing diversity in STEM fields is essential for South Carolina and the nation in order to maintain a global leadership role in innovation.

“This is central to our role as a land-grant, research university,” he said. “We have many successful programs that are making a difference, but we need to do more. Our commitment to increasing diversity is ingrained in the Clemson Forward strategic plan.”

Troubling statistics have raised concerns that vast swaths of the population are being left out of high-paying jobs in fast-growing job markets.

Blacks account for 11.5 percent of the U.S. population and hold 4.6 percent of the science and engineering jobs, according to last year’s report, “Revisiting the STEM Workforce,” from the National Science Board.

Meanwhile, women comprise about half of all employed college graduates but represent 28 percent of individuals with college degrees who are working in science and engineering occupations, the board found.

Advocates said that while minorities and women are most affected, they aren’t the only ones who lose out when they are underrepresented as engineers and scientists. No one knows what game-changing innovations could become a reality if only a more diverse group of thinkers were educated in STEM fields, they said.

Students gather in the PEER and WISE offices throughout the school year to study and to connect with each other. It’s where students who may be the only minority or female in some of their classes can find a friendly face and someone to share tips, such as which books to buy and what classes to take.

Activities also occur over the summer.

Girls in 7th- and 8th-grades will visit campus for “Project: WISE,” a week-long summer camp aimed at introducing them to career possibilities in science, technology, engineering and math.

Hundreds of girls have participated in the annual camp since it launched in 1997.

In the past, participants have performed bypass surgery on a bovine heart, made cosmetics and designed web pages. They have also participated in dance classes, trips to the movies, games and sessions that promote self-esteem.

Clemson students who participate in WISE serve as mentors to the campers.

“This year promises to be just as exciting as years past,” Acker said. “Project: WISE supports our overall goal of closing the gender gap in STEM careers. The gap has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with a lack of exposure. By showing girls what’s possible, we help open a whole new world to them.”

Also this summer Foundations In Research Experience, or FIRE, will be back for its second year.

The PEER program targets incoming freshmen who are underrepresented in engineering and science, giving them a chance to get familiar with campus and make the connections that will help them succeed.

FIRE is funded by Duke Energy and the Louis Stokes-South Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation. The program helps meet a 2012 recommendation from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to “launch a national experiment in post-secondary mathematics education to address the mathematics-preparation gap.”

Freddy Paige, a Ph.D. student in civil engineering, created FIRE after a separate summer program, Math Excellence Workshop, was cancelled due to a decrease in funding.

His experience at Clemson helps underscores the role PEER can play in students’ university experience.

Paige first came to Clemson as a freshman from Murrells Inlet. He said said that when he visited as part of a summer program before his freshman year, he jumped directly into calculus, brushing aside suggestions that he start with pre-calculus.

“When I came to Clemson, I didn’t want to show weakness academically,” Paige said. “I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, and I didn’t want other people to catch onto that.”

Paige took advantage of the help offered to him and by the end of the class was named “most likely to receive a Ph.D.” He went on to get his undergraduate degree in civil engineering and is on track to have his doctorate by August.

Acker said that while progress has been made nationally, work remains to be done at Clemson and beyond.

“We can always use more support,” she said. “For example, we’re always looking for corporations that can provide internships and co-ops, where students can get real-world experience. At the end of the day, we’re all working toward the same goal– keeping the pipeline filled with talent.”

To create more success stories, Acker called for more outreach programs that make students aware of the opportunities in STEM as early as elementary school. Many students, especially those from families that have never been to college, will remain in the dark without such programs, Acker said.

It’s also important to have programs, such as PEER and WISE, that support underrepresented students, she said. The mentoring, academic help and opportunities to connect with industry can be transformative in a student’s college experience, Acker said.