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AAAS Officials Describe Diversity as a Key Component in Innovation
Dr. Shirley Malcom
Dr. Daryl Chubin
While the United States attracts two-thirds of the international students who study abroad, a testament to the quality of its universities, those same universities continue to do a poor job of bringing neglected groups of American-born students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to two education specialists at AAAS.
In 2004, 572,000 undergraduate and graduate students from abroad enrolled in U.S. universities, according to Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS and Daryl Chubin, director of the association’s Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.
That figure, including 80,000 students from India and 62,000 from China, accounted for two-thirds of the world’s international students in 2004, Malcom and Chubin said during a 25 May presentation to a group of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows. The ability of the United States to attract students from abroad has helped it maintain a competitive edge in science and technology, an edge that political and academic leaders fear the U.S. could be in danger of losing.
As recent studies have found, the S&T landscape has been changing, with more international students electing to study at home or in nations other than the United States. Australia has overtaken the United States and Britain as the destination of choice among fee-paying foreign students.
Despite recent attention to the competitiveness issue from the White House and on Capitol Hill, Malcom said the United States lacks a national strategy for human resources in science and technology.
“Our biggest problem is that we take it for granted that when we need people, they’ll be there,” Malcom said. “We can import them.” But the other nations of the world “have not sat still for us,” she added. The United States must find ways to nurture home-grown talent for its science and technology workforce, she said, a point she has been making for many years.
The American workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (so-called STEM positions) could benefit from greater participation by women and under-represented minorities, but many universities lag in their efforts to recruit and retain such students, Malcom and Chubin said. Despite some gains, the statistics speak for themselves.
Among STEM-related doctorates awarded in 2004, only 746 went to underrepresented minorities-African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans-or just 2.8 percent of the total. The gender imbalance in science and engineering also remains a chronic issue. Five out of six engineering students and nine out of 10 engineering professors are male, according to Malcom and Chubin.
In an article in the June issue of Physics Today, Malcom notes that women received only 22 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics in 2003 and 18 percent of the Ph.D.s. In 2004, they received 15.5 percent of the physics doctorates.
Malcom and Chubin argue that universities are de-centralized, often hide-bound institutions that have not learned how to share “best practices” in attracting a broader spectrum of students to the sciences. Even on a single campus, one science department may be doing well in its outreach to students from underrepresented groups while another department across the quad may be doing poorly.
“Any institution can be minority-serving,” Chubin said, if there is sufficient commitment on the part of the administration and faculty. He cited the example of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which has had great success with a scholarship program aimed at increasing the number of minority students graduating with degrees in STEM fields. The school’s president, Freeman Hrabowski III, has been the driving force in expanding his school's access to high-performing minority students.
Hrabowski is not the norm, according to Malcom and Chubin. “We suffer in many ways from a lack of leadership,” Malcom said. “There is no vision that all students can be successful.” Too often, she said, promising students do not prosper in science and engineering programs because of the weeding out that happens in research-oriented programs. Judgments are made prematurely that a student “couldn’t cut it,” she said. The emphasis is on “performance, not potential.”
Malcom also called for more willingness by the science education establishment to consider alternative career paths for doctoral-level students in STEM fields. Appropriately, they were speaking to a group of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows-scientists and engineers who spend a year working in federal agencies to learn about the policy process. Many of them go on to offer their expertise in permanent federal positions. Malcom said the Fellows program is a good example of the way that Ph.D.-level specialists in the science and technology can be encouraged to explore non-traditional roles.
Malcom also cited her own career success in science education policy even though she received her Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in ecology. As a “fallen away ecologist,” Malcom said she still looks for answers to difficult problems with a systems approach. For improvements in science education and workforce training, she said, that must mean thoughtful interventions beginning at the earliest grade levels and continuing throughout a person’s professional career.
To learn more about Education and Human Resources at AAAS, click here.
To learn more about the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity, click here.
1 June 2006