The common denominator for entry into most STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors is the ability to successfully complete high-level math courses. There is no getting around this requirement in order to obtain degrees in majors like engineering, computer science and chemistry.
There may not be one magic bullet that will increase the diversity of students in STEM majors, but placing a laser-like focus on academic achievement in mathematics will help more students get past gatekeeper courses like calculus.
Universities can design and/or expand summer bridge programs that focus extensively on building competency in mathematics for students who are interested in majoring in STEM fields but lack strong math backgrounds. They can also dedicate funding streams to support summer school learning opportunities for current students who need to catch up on math courses in order to stay on track to graduate within four years.
An accelerated level of peer-to-peer tutoring opportunities and other wraparound support services would also be helpful. It will ultimately be up to students to take the initiative to utilize these services.
Students must have the will and desire to get over the roadblocks they will inevitably encounter in these courses. They need a consistent support system to encourage them to not get weaker but to dig deeper.
Many students doubt themselves and lack confidence in their ability to successfully complete higher level math classes. These feelings cause some to give up on majors like engineering before they even begin. There should be efforts to build academic swagger in them to help them overcome mental barriers that they may have set for themselves.
There is an assortment of partnerships and varying mechanisms of engagement that higher education institutions have with K-12 educational systems. Most engagements should be applauded and supported. There is, however, a need to strategically target these efforts. Some colleges and universities have random and sporadic engagement that may not be focused on the most pivotal areas of need.
A lot of the programming in the area of STEM seems to be around the area of general exposure. This is crucial and is very much needed to help generate awareness of STEM careers for students who may not be aware of certain occupational avenues. But generating interest without helping to develop the required math competency is a losing formula.
In the realm of education at the secondary school level, there is also a need to put an extra focus on achievement in mathematics. All subjects in school have value and are generally worthy of study. Young people should strive to make A’s in every subject. Unfortunately, too many students underachieve in classes beyond basic algebra, which end up becoming stumbling blocks that many students don’t seem to get past.
The consequence of this is that the choice of majoring in high-growth STEM fields when they reach a college or university is taken off the table due to lack of math competency. The long-term impact of this is a furthering of occupational segregation that cloisters large numbers of minorities into lower wage occupations.
There also is a tremendous need for highly qualified and motivated math teachers at the elementary school level. Different models for increased compensation may need to be explored to attract the most competent and capable math teachers into classrooms.
There is a premium on talented educators who can effectively disseminate information and instruction with enthusiasm. The math instruction should be connected to tangible careers. The real world application of abstract mathematical concepts can be explicitly highlighted and reinforced.
There also is a community aspect of the underperformance in mathematics. Communities can assist with placing an enhanced priority on high-level math achievement. Higher education institutions can assist community organizations with creating avenues for people who have expertise in these subjects to convey their knowledge to students. This can occur at after-school programs, sports camps and summer activities hosted by universities or other entities. This exposure and support can be a spark and motivating force for students to apply themselves more toward mastering high-level math content.
If colleges and universities are sincere about increasing diversity in STEM fields, they must leverage their expertise and increase the math competency of their prospective and current students. Institutions should continue to devise ways to make keys to open the gate to mathematical success, which prevents many students of color from graduating with degrees in STEM fields.
Dr. Marcus Bright is the executive director of Education for a Better America.