In November, President Obama announced the Educate to Innovate campaign, an initiative designed to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It recognizes that American students are underperforming in math and science at a time when our nation needs those skills the most, and seeks to increase students’ proficiency in related subject areas, expand education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, and retain America’s leadership and innovation.
The desire to attract more people to STEM majors and careers isn’t just a concern for the federal government. Leaders from various sectors recognize this issue as a top priority. The Business-Higher Education Forum–a group comprised of CEOs, university presidents and foundation leaders–is currently working on a STEM initiative that seeks to double the number of STEM college undergraduates by 2015.
If we are to increase our nation’s STEM capacity, we must focus on attracting underrepresented minorities. These groups–African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans–are an underutilized resource and possible solution to meeting our future needs.
The National Academy of Engineering says that the remedy to our STEM skills shortage must include a focus on attracting minorities, as it will increase the number of trained personnel and help to meet the needs of the competitive global marketplace. And as the proportion of the total population of the United States made up of people of color grows from roughly one-third in 2008 to more than half by 2050, it will become even more critical for higher education institutions ensure that the nation’s future scientists, engineers, information technologists, mathematicians, computer programmers and health care workers reflect the diversity of the U.S. population.
Why are these minorities underrepresented in scientific disciplines? Across postsecondary education, the current rate of degree completion for non-Asian minority students lags behind White students. The bachelor’s degree completion gap is even wider in the STEM disciplines: nearly 70% for White students, compared with 42% for African-Americans and 49% for Hispanics. Research indicates that lack of interest is not the primary cause of these achievement gaps, and that the disparities can be attributed largely to economic factors and academic preparation among racial subgroups.
To effectively cultivate interest and ability in STEM-related disciplines, interventions must occur early, beginning at the K-12 level and continuing throughout the collegiate years. At the K-12 level, efforts must focus on cultivating interest and increasing academic proficiency in mathematics and science in all students, with a special focus on minority students. It is imperative that students develop a conceptual understanding in mathematics and science during the grade school years, so that they will be better prepared as they enter more advanced high school and collegiate-level coursework.
At the collegiate level, there must be a comprehensive strategy focused on minority students’ recruitment, retention, graduation and matriculation into STEM graduate programs or careers. The curriculum must also be aligned to the relevant marketplace, students should be involved in ongoing research activities, and the use of technology and specialized equipment should be encouraged. These activities should be simultaneous and reinforcing.
Additionally, other initiatives may include an approach that includes public-private partnerships involving the higher-education community, business community and government. Both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation support STEM undergraduate education at schools that serve largely Black, Hispanic, and Native American student bodies, through programs such as the Model Institutions of Excellence and Model Replication Institutions initiatives, respectively.
There is no single solution to the problem of under-representation of minority students in STEM disciplines. But the nation must make educational success of minority students in these fields a priority. Strategic investments in STEM education can have a tremendous effect on halting the erosion of the U.S. preeminence in the science and technology marketplace.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy.