National Academies Committee Recommends Measures To Boost Minority STEM Participation

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

 

Citing the relatively low levels of minority representation in science and engineering, leaders of a National Academies committee working to increase diversity in those fields released a new report Thursday that shows the extent of the problem and makes recommendations on how to solve it.

The report—titled “Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads”—shows that underrepresented minorities (African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans) represent 28.5 percent of the U.S. population but only 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in the science and engineering workforce.

The National Academies are the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, National Research Council, and Institute of Medicine, which are federally chartered advisory organizations.

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, chair of the Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline, which did the report under the auspices of the National Academies, said that, in order to triple the number of underrepresented minorities in the science and engineering workforce and make it match their proportion in the overall population, educators must collectively decide now to devote more time and energy to being intentional about turning things around.

“All of us have to look in the mirror,” Hrabowski told an audience of about 50 educators and others who gathered at the National Academies in Washington, D.C., for the release of the report. “All of us can do a much better job.”

Along those lines, the “Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation” report contains a series of recommendations, several of which have specific applications for institutions of higher education.

Among other things, the report recommends that colleges and universities:

 

* Work with local school districts to increase the recruitment, preparation, professional development and retention of well-qualified elementary and secondary math and science teachers prepared to teach diverse students. “This preparation should include the requirement that the core teacher education curriculum provide courses in multicultural approaches to pedagogy,” the report states.

 

* Do more outreach and recruitment and develop a “feeder system” to develop a group of underrepresented minority students who aspire to enroll in college to study science and engineering.

 

* Develop summer programs in math, science and engineering that include or target underrepresented minority high school students. “These programs should provide experiences that stimulate interest in these fields through study, hands-on, active research projects and develop a cadre of students who support each other in their interest,” the report states.

Other recommendations for institutions of higher education deal with making efforts to provide more academic and social support and more need-based assistance for minority students entering Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM fields.

The need for social support was underscored by the experience of one African-American female computer science student who spoke of arriving in a class only to be asked if she had gotten “lost.”

“Because I wasn’t a skinny White boy, I didn’t look like a ‘computer science’ student,” she said.

“We’re looking at ways of helping people who are going to be the one or two in their classroom,” Hrabowski responded.

Lindsay Birt, Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellow at the Water Science and Technology Board of the Division on Earth and Life Sciences, said she has been in the position of being the “one” minority in doctoral study classes at Purdue University.

Birt’s path to a career in science offers hints at how to get more students from minority groups into the fields at the college level, particularly at the post-graduate level.

After her mother sparked her interest in science by getting Birt into math and science programs at universities in Houston, where she grew up, her path toward a career in science was paved further by the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. Named after the former congressman from Cleveland and advocate for minorities in science, LSAMP is a National Science Foundation program that seeks to boost minority student success in STEM by, among other things, paying for the first two years of a student’s post-baccalaureate studies so that they can focus on their coursework.

Hrabowski said one of the best ways to increase minority representation in science and engineering is to help students find ways to get through school without having to work.

We would argue that working and middle-class students need financial support,” Hrabowski said. “Not financial aid. They need scholarships.”

He said the demands of STEM field studies are such that having to work a job greatly erodes a student’s chances of succeeding or going further in STEM fields.

“If you’re going to major in biochemistry, you need to marry biochemistry,” Hrabowski said, describing the kind of advice he gives students who enter the academically demanding STEM fields.

The report released Thursday examines the scope of disparities within STEM fields in terms of enrollment and completion rates, among other things.

It shows, for instance, that underrepresented minorities represent 33.2 percent of the U.S. population but only 26.2 percent of all undergraduate enrollment, whereas non-underrepresented minority students represented 66.8 percent of the college-age population but 71.7 percent of all undergraduate enrollment.

The numbers become more incongruent when one examines the rate at which the students from both groups enter and progress in their studies of science and engineering.

Bachelor’s degree attainment in science in engineering for underrepresented minority versus non-underrepresented minority students was 17.7 and 78.3 percent, respectively. Master’s degree attainment in science and engineering was 14.6 and 58.3 percent, respectively, and doctorate degree attainment was 5.4 and 52 percent, respectively.

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