As the United States strives to improve and protect its economic future by educating a skilled scientific and technical workforce, it must train students representing the entire spectrum of the American population, particularly minority groups who characterize the fastest-growing segments of the populace, experts say.
While there have been mixed results in getting more underrepresented minorities educated and working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—fields collectively known as STEM—educators now have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. And according to experts at a symposium on minority men and STEM education, co-sponsored by AAAS, they are developing a clearer understanding of strategies that can help to diversify in these professions.
“We identified the challenges and best practices,” Leland Melvin, a former astronaut and NASA’s associate administrator for education, told the symposium held at his agency’s Washington headquarters. “Now it is time to go the next step and really have a call to action to increase minority participation in STEM fields.”
Fewer Americans are training for STEM jobs, which increasingly are going to those born in other countries and then educated here. But, experts said at the conference, the United States cannot meet its economic needs without the full participation of the country’s expanding minority groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Southeast Asian/Pacific Islanders.
In 2008, the male college-age population was 60% white, 15.5% black, 18.5% Hispanic, 4.3% Asian/Pacific Islander and 1.3% Native American. Yet, of the bachelor degrees in STEM subjects awarded to males that year, 66.6% went to whites, 5% to blacks, 6.7% to Hispanics, 10.9% to Asian/Pacific Islanders and 0.6% to Native Americans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The 28 February symposium was sponsored by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), AAAS Education and Human Resources (EHR) directorate and the association’s Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity. It featured a range of prominent advocates of STEM education and workforce development, including U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Carl Wieman, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Also among the speakers were EHR head Shirley Malcom and Daryl E. Chubin, senior adviser to the AAAS Capacity Center.
One focus of the day-long event was a new APLU report, based on a recent survey of minority students, higher education faculty, and administrators, which drew a sharp set of conclusions: In order to succeed in science-related studies and professions, motivated men from underrepresented minority groups need active engagement and mentoring by college faculty, personal involvement in undergraduate research, and adequate financial support.
The report is part of the APLU’s Minority Male STEM initiative, dubbed M2STEM, which is meant to assist institutions of higher education in identifying, retaining, and graduating more men from minority backgrounds. Lorenzo L. Esters, the APLU vice president who directs the initiative, said future work will look at minority women and their particular STEM issues.
Esters said the APLU decided to target minority males because there is a growing gender gap in college with fewer minority males attending, suggesting there are specific problems and challenges that need addressing. “It’s a good place to start,” he said.
The study was based on a survey of 1443 students working toward undergraduate STEM degrees, 137 faculty, and 71 administrators from 14 higher education institutions of different sizes from across the country, including Alaska and Hawaii.
Among key findings:
Much of the discussion at the symposium detailed and dissected the findings reported by the APLU authors.
Lawrence G. Abele, director of Florida State University’s Institute for Academic Leadership, said administrators must provide an infrastructure to promote, develop and retain STEM-interested minority men. “It’s key that university administrators provide the support,” he said.
One problem is retaining student interest in STEM fields at every stage of education, Abele said, noting that there are very good minority students interested in science in elementary school, where efforts should begin. “We start losing minority males as early as the 7th grade,” he said, “and between the 9th and 10th, grades approximately 25% of both black and Hispanic males drop out of school.”
By college age, he said, it is not difficult to have good retention rates among minorities in STEM studies—if they are properly supported. But without research opportunities and targeted retention efforts, science-related fields lose many promising students to other majors, such as business and finance.
Malcom said finances are a big policy factor for students and faculty in helping advance underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. Minority students tend to have a lot of debt, she said, which makes it less likely for them to seek post-graduate education. Funding also affects faculty and their incentives to serve minority students through research opportunities and mentoring.
“We understand that in many cases you have people who really want to provide research opportunities and such things for students,” Malcom said. “However, when faculty are rewarded for research grants instead of teaching and mentoring, these policies push you in a particular direction.”
Malcom and others said there is a problem with schools not keeping good data on minority students to see not only who is admitted, but what happens afterwards—what they end up studying, for example, or whether they stay in school. Without data to track outcomes, schools can’t tell if they are just enrolling minorities or serving those students, she said.
Nicole Smith, a senior economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that even though the demand for STEM talent is growing, STEM professions will total only 5% of all jobs in the U.S. economy by 2018. However, according to a study released by her center last year, the demand for STEM talent is growing even faster outside of traditional STEM occupations.
This demand for STEM talent and competencies—including problem-solving, analytical skills, and organizational and managerial abilities—is pulling STEM-educated people into better-paying occupations such as finance, health care, and industrial management. But the diversion of people from STEM fields is not just about the money, the study said. Talent goes elsewhere because STEM jobs often do not fully satisfy individual social and entrepreneurial interests.
“People with good STEM backgrounds, over time, were able to earn better wages no matter what field they eventually occupied,” she said, compared to those with similar degrees in non-STEM disciplines.
For those who stay with STEM professions, earnings are relatively high and show less of a pay gap than other occupations between minorities and women on one hand and white men on the other, Smith said. “STEM is one of only a few equal opportunity occupations left in this country,” she said.
Separately, a day before the symposium, AAAS and a partner issued a new report on how colleges and universities can develop innovative programs to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields within the legal restraints placed on diversity initiatives by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Court rulings have restricted affirmative action and other types of programs targeted to enhance educational opportunities for specific groups. The report released by EducationCounsel LLC, a law, policy, strategy and advocacy organization, and the AAAS Diversity and Law Project, uses the metaphor of an electric power grid to show how institutions can link up to develop diversity in STEM education.
The report is titled “The Smart Grid for Institutions of Higher Education and the Students They Serve: Developing and Using Collaborative Agreements to Bring More Students into STEM.”
It features programs already used by schools across the country to increase minority participation and retention in STEM programs in ways that legally consider students’ ethnic and gender differences.
Chubin, senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity, said the report provides a sustainable legal framework for diversity that allows college and university leaders to work with their legal counsels in developing programs to broaden participation in STEM fields.
“It shows how institutions can do it, with working examples to serve as models, in legally sustainable ways,” Chubin said.
One type of collaboration, for example, can be between community colleges and four-year institutions. There are almost 1200 accredited community, junior, and technical colleges that can provide two years of a baccalaureate education, as well as associate degrees that support national workforce goals. These community colleges are home to 44% of African Americans, 55% of Native Americans and almost 60% of Latinos in higher education, the report said, with 42% of all first-generation college students starting there.
Four-year institutions could work with community colleges to set standards for core courses, transferable credits, and grade point requirements that smooth the transition of students between them. Florida, for instance, has a legislatively mandated policy that allows students who earn an associate’s degree from one of 23 state community colleges with a minimum grade point to enter a state university with junior status if they are accepted. Such collaboration, with emphasis on STEM study, could channel a diverse group of students into such careers.
“The pursuit of inter-institutional relationships, coupled with coordinated and targeted outreach and student support, that can foster new pathways and promote new opportunities merits serious attention,” the report concludes, “and it merits that attention now.”
Read “The Quest for Excellence: Supporting the Academic Success of Minority Males in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Disciplines,” a report by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
Read “The Smart Grid for Institutions of Higher Education and the Students They Serve: Developing and Using Collaborative Agreements to Bring More Students into STEM,” published by AAAS and the law firm EducationCounsel LLC.
Learn more about the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity