Despite Gains, Obstacles Still Exist for Diversity in STEM Education, Says AAAS’s Shirley Malcom

Despite modest improvements over the past decade, underrepresented minorities still face significant institutional and cultural barriers pursuing science and engineering degrees, AAAS Education and Human Resources Director Shirley Malcom warned in testimony on Capitol Hill.

With rising higher education debt among undergraduates, a lack of minority representation among faculty and peers, and “failures of [science education] policy, from the individual school and district to the state and federal government,” Malcom said that the country is not developing the next generation of scientists and engineers that will drive U.S. innovation.

Speaking before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, Malcom called on lawmakers to expand federal initiatives that have successfully broadened participation in science education—like the National Science Foundation’s Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate—which have increased the number of PhDs for underrepresented minorities at participating institutions.

Shirley Malcom
Shirley Malcom

Malcom said that producing leaders for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in industry, government, and faculty will require more focus on PhD degree production.

She cited surveys suggesting recent increases in diversity for physical sciences fields have been driven by more underrepresented minority participation in chemistry, while physics participation remains low. In addition, most underrepresented minorities’ improvement is being driven by women, while males are under-participating across many STEM fields.

Malcom also called for more initiatives to increase the participation in STEM education for women and persons with disabilities. Despite being at parity with men for STEM bachelor degrees (except in physics, computer science and engineering) and an increasing number of doctoral degrees, women are not present among STEM faculty at the levels that might be expected.

Malcom encouraged policy makers to identify the specific impediments to STEM diversity and tailor solutions appropriate to the institution or to barriers faced by the different racial or ethnic groups. The remedy for under representation in some STEM degree programs may be to increase diversity in its applicant pool, while in others the solution is to increase the diversity of its faculty mentors. She noted that faculty diversity is a concern for all under represented groups.

Beyond improving STEM education at colleges and universities, Malcom called for higher standards, more rigorous courses, and better teaching in K-12 curricula to improve preparation for college and university science.

“Every person that comes into this world is a scientist,” said Malcom. “But we are killing a large part of that natural curiosity with poor teaching and poorly designed curricula.”

She added that improving science education in the U.S. will require strong federal leadership along with an examination of science curricula “department by department, community by community” around the country.

Malcom spoke 8 March in the Rayburn House Office Building alongside Alicia C. Dowd, co-director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California; Keivan Stassun, co-director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program; David Yarlott, chair of the board of directors of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium; and Elaine Craft, director of the South Carolina Advanced Technological Education National Resource Center.

Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-Illinois) said that the United States will have a difficult time developing a well-trained STEM work force if “it continues to overlook a significant parts of the talent pool.”

“Science and engineering have become steadily more important not only in our daily lives, but also to the economic strength and competitiveness of the United States,” said Lipinski. He added that the nation must do a better job of fostering STEM, especially because changing demographics mean that by 2050, 55% of the college population will be from groups that are currently minorities.

Echoing Malcom’s recommendation for strong federal STEM diversity initiatives, Dowd called for a “series of bold experiments” that would break down harsh campus cultures for African-American, Latino, and American Indian students. She added that any investment in diversity will be repaid in innovation.

Dowd said that studies indicate minority students begin college as STEM majors at the same rate as non-minority students. But by the time they graduate, minority students are more likely to have switched to a non-science major. “We don’t face an aspirations gap,” she said. “We need to figure out what is happening while they are on campus that causes them to leave STEM.”

Stassun, who co-directs a program that helps students completing a master’s degree at Fisk University, a small historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee, transition to a PhD program at Vanderbilt University, said that faculty leadership “is the single most important factor related to STEM diversity.”

He added that it is because of careful mentorship at both schools that, next year, Vanderbilt will become the top research university to award PhDs to underrepresented minorities in astronomy, physics, and materials science.

Yarlott, who is also the president of Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana, said that developing minority STEM talent goes beyond academics and must include a “holistic approach” that understands the culture and circumstances in which students are raised. His institution, one of 35 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) around the country that serve Native American communities, recognizes that “mind, body, soul, and family” play an important role in a student’s ability to thrive in a rigorous academic environment.

Craft said that efforts to increase diversity in STEM must include initiatives geared towards the more than 11 million students in community and technical colleges. Craft said that these institutions train a majority of technicians that “serve as the front line” for the conduct of science and technology.

“The workforce needs more technicians than scientists or engineers,” Craft said. She estimated that for every one scientist working in a laboratory, there can be anywhere between three and 12 technicians.

Blue Box: Read Shirley Malcom’s submitted testimony or watch archived video from the hearing before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education.