The National Science Foundation and other national organizations are increasingly using the term “missing millions” to signify talent lost to the country’s lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Using skills he learned during his counselor education training, Virginia Tech alumnus James Moore is leading the charge to reach those millions and create opportunities for underserved communities across the United States.

In August, Moore was named assistant director for the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for STEM Education. This new role entails making significant investments in activities that advance knowledge, translation, and impact in STEM education, workforce development, participation, and discovery and innovation. In his role, Moore oversees nearly 200 people  and a budget of more than $1 billion to support research aimed at achieving excellence in STEM education at all levels.

He earned an English education degree from Delaware State University before earning his master’s and doctoral degrees in counselor education from Virginia Tech in 1997 and 2000. Moore credits both his undergraduate and graduate education, along with the time he spent working in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering’s tutoring center and Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (formerly the Office of Minority Engineering Programs), with preparing him for the role and opening his eyes to the STEM challenges faced by many under-represented communities.

Prior to his foundation appointment, Moore was vice provost for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at Ohio State University. He will continue to hold his appointments as Education and Human Ecology Distinguished Professor of Urban Education and executive director for Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male at Ohio State while also serving with the foundation.

In 2020, Moore received Virginia Tech’s Graduate Alumni Achievement Award, which is given to alumni who demonstrate outstanding national and/or international achievements and exemplary contributions to their profession, discipline, community, or society, and enhance the reputation of the university.

How has your education prepared you for your role with the National Science Foundation?

Everything I’ve done, whether working in a K–12 space or higher education space, prepared me for the opportunity. I see myself as an education researcher who is trained in both social and behavioral sciences. The core of my job is solving problems, dealing with idiosyncrasies, and creating conditions for change. That’s what counselors do — facilitate change. My academic training has prepared me for a variety of opportunities. As a leader and researcher, you are confronted with a conflict; as a counselor, you learn conflict mediation and how to mitigate or channel potential conflicts in a positive direction.

When did you realize there is a need for more diversity in STEM education and why is it a subject you’re passionate about?

While I was pursuing my master’s and Ph.D. at Virginia Tech, I worked in the College of Engineering. It is the social and educational context where I became better acquainted with the salient issues that often impact student success for women, people of color, and other under-represented groups in STEM. I worked under my beloved mentor who I like to call the greatest of all time (GOAT) — Dr. Bevlee A. Watford. She was an outstanding mentor and was the one who championed and encouraged me to join NSF the first time.

Along with my research findings on STEM education and leadership experiences in both K-12 and higher education, the experience of working in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering really prepared me for opportunities at places like NSF. I am keenly aware that there are challenges that certain demographics experience in certain domains that other groups do not. In some social and educational spaces like engineering, many under-represented groups experience heightened psychological, physiological, and emotional anxieties due to the nature of the academic climate and how they experience it. It is important to note that anxiety induced from negative STEM experiences tends to have damaging effects on students’ academic aspirations and learning outcomes.

What is the biggest barrier for the “missing millions” in STEM education, and how do you plan to address it?

There is an ecosystem of low expectations – demonstrated through under-preparation, under-cultivation, and neglect – that impedes distressed, under-resourced, and under-served communities from being able to fully realize their dreams. Too often, students from such communities take everything that is available in their school system, and it's still not enough. Not all advanced placement is created equally. The way opportunity is structured in this country, the privileged keep getting privileged. So how do you right those wrongs? How do you reach out to Appalachia in new ways? How do you reach out to the Black Belt of Alabama? How do you make investments in the Delta, and the regions of this country that have struggled?

There are great minds in every zip code, and I’ve learned in my journey as an educator, counselor, leader, and scholar that if you build the right apparatus, you can help people realize their dreams. Sometimes, people need extra support but that doesn’t mean that they do not have the capacity to succeed.

My NSF job is to launch a strategy to make STEM education more inclusive, diverse, and accessible to everyone in all communities. We are laser focused on investing in the best ideas and people who are going to help the agency reach the missing millions in STEM.

STEM education and liberal arts are on different ends of the spectrum, but between your work and your education, you’ve been able to navigate both. Do you see opportunities for people with liberal arts degrees to step into the STEM world?

Oh, I certainly do. In many ways, I would say that I use my counselor education training and skills more in a non-counseling context than in a counseling context. My research cuts across many different disciplines — so much so that most people do not know what my degree is in. My research lines have extended immense opportunities for me to be more transdisciplinary. Even though I am not an engineer or have a STEM degree, I am very familiar with the secondary and postsecondary courses that students must take and what are common characteristics for success in STEM. My academic training, leadership experiences, and research endeavors all have played a major role in helping me to create student success models, structures, and interventions in STEM and beyond. I get much joy and satisfaction helping people reach their dreams, especially those individuals who have not been adequately supported, cultivated, and nurtured. This is a calling that I have fully embraced from a very early age.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Written by Kelsey Bartlett