November 2010

Alternative Approaches to Increasing Minority Participation in STEM Areas

The underrepresentation of minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is an issue that continues to plague our scientific community. Alleviating this disparity requires programs that foster the interest and growth of middle and high school students in STEM areas.


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The underrepresentation of minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is an issue that continues to plague our scientific community.

The Issue

The underrepresentation of minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is an issue that continues to plague our scientific community. According to the National Science Foundation, of all the doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering in 2006, 3 percent were earned by African-Americans, 4.9 percent by Hispanics and 0.1 percent by American Indians/Alaska Natives. Several federal agencies, scientific societies and organizations have approached this issue by funding awards to undergraduate and graduate-level students from under-represented backgrounds. As a product of one of these initiatives, I can attest that, beyond removing financial limitations, the programs prepare and encourage the growth of individuals from under-represented backgrounds, making them more competitive. The efforts have produced admirable results, increasing minority representation in government, academic and industry sectors. Unfortunately, such efforts cannot fully eliminate the disparity that exists in STEM areas.

In 2006, the Program for International Student Assessment revealed that high school teens in the U.S. were not competitive in comparison with their peers in other countries in science and math, ranking 17th in science and 24th in math of the 30 countries assessed. The assessment also revealed that African-Americans and Hispanics, on average, scored lower than their Caucasian and Asian counterparts. This assessment illustrates two unsettling points. First, the lack of student competitiveness and literacy in science and math is an issue that pervades race and extends throughout this generation of young people in our country. Second, the disparities in math and science do not start at the college level but much earlier, confirming the need for the implementation of programs that foster the interest and growth of students in these areas.

Alternative Approaches: Shifting Our Focus

Alleviating this disparity requires programs that foster the interest and growth of middle and high school students in STEM areas. An initiative that targets students at this level ensures that they will be equipped with the knowledge and tools required to excel in STEM areas. Shifting our focus to middle and high school students and monitoring their progress secures a steady pipeline of scientists starting from the middle school level up to higher education.

Recruitment and Retention

The strength of such initiatives needs to be the ability to effectively recruit and retain cohorts of students. Recruitment tactics should focus on rescuing those most at risk: under-represented students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not receiving the funding or attention they need. This will require that programs are accessible and economically feasible to those targeted. Retention of participants relies heavily on the ability of administrators to remain committed to the progress of students and ensuring that the assistance needed for their advancement is provided. Such efforts would create a diverse group of students that serves as a support system for their peers, encouraging the matriculation of the cohort through the program and eventually into college. It also exposes participants to a network of peers nurtured in STEM areas.

 

Making Science Relatable

Minority Affairs
According to the National Science Foundation, of all the doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering in 2006, 3 percent were earned by African-Americans, 4.9 percent by Hispanics and 0.1 percent by American Indians/Alaska Natives.

Initiatives targeted toward under-represented middle and high school students should include after-school and summer-enrichment programs. This ensures that students will be involved actively in their academic development throughout the year. Such programs should include curriculum that focuses exclusively on science, math and technology. Instead of employing school teachers as instructors, college seniors or graduate-level students in STEM areas from under-represented backgrounds should be used. These college mentors could teach the courses on a rotating basis, based on the subject matter being covered; this would ensure that students are given the correct information from someone who is passionate about the subject and has a desire to share it. This also would allow the college-level instructors gain experience in education and the students gain a mentor to whom they can relate. The teacher becomes the tangible example of what is possible for students if they pursue an education in science. The college mentors also should be provided with curriculum that allows them to teach the subject matter in a way that is simple and applicable to the students’ lives, using examples from everyday situations. Each lesson should be paired with hands-on lab sections in which the students can apply the lesson in a practical way.

Professional Development and Mentorship

Students also should gain professional development. Exposure to scientists from under-represented backgrounds, either by inviting speakers or through field trips to university laboratories, would reinforce the idea that succeeding in science is feasible. Interactions with scientists would show students how to interact in an academic or professional environment. The initiative also should include mentorship. This could be implemented by pairing high school students with undergraduate mentors who are committed to graduate studies. As the mentor matriculates through the ranks, the mentee follows close behind so as to benefit from immediate lessons at various stages. This guarantees each student is being directly advised and guided and also ensures that the students are surrounded not only by peers but also by mentors who can support them as they commence through the program.

How Can We Help?

Developing and implementing these programs can be initiated by individuals, communities, schools, organizations and federal agencies. Passionate individuals can start nonprofit organizations focused on mentoring, tutoring and exposing students to STEM areas. Local businesses, universities, museums and organizations can partner with middle and high schools to volunteer time or funding to develop STEM enrichment programs. A larger impact can be made if such initiatives are paired with existing federally funded programs at the college and graduate levels. Including a middle and high school component in grants that are designed to increase participation in STEM areas ensures that students can be further groomed and prepared at every level of their education.

I believe that if we can raise a generation of children who can master the technology of cell phones and computers, we can nurture the growth of these same students in science. As a society, we can’t afford not to — its our obligation to invest in policies and initiatives that increase the numbers of minorities in STEM areas of research.

Lola Olufemi (olufemi_lola@yahoo.com) is a doctoral candidate/NSF BRIDGE fellow at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.


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