Why So Few: Minority Underrepresentation In STEM Majors
Louisiana State University
The United States global technological competitiveness depends on the ability to sustain and grow the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce (STEM). The STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are in high demand of workers. STEM jobs account for 6.2% of US employment and between 2009 and 2015, has grown by 8 million jobs (Fayer, Lacey & Watson, 2017). Eventually, the STEM job occupation will grow by 8.9 percent between 2014 and 2024; faster than the growth rate projected for all occupations (Noonan, 2017). The United States will add more than 2.6 million STEM job openings from 2014 to 2024 (Fayer et al, 2017). The United States have a STEM crisis. Across the country, there is a shortage of graduates in the STEM fields. Scholars and policymakers are concerned that the demand of job growth in the STEM field will not be met due to the small STEM labor pool.
White males have dominated the population of STEM professionals. In the workforce and postsecondary institutions, women and underrepresented students of color are few in STEM majors and fields. Due to the rapidly shifting demographics of the country, every member should be considered for entry into STEM fields. Groups that are historically underrepresented in STEM fields must be targeted. Minorities and women are underrepresented in STEM majors at postsecondary institutions throughout the country; although the numbers are slowly increasing. Their growth and strengthening influence in society must reflect the insights/viewpoints and roles that they can contribute to the demand of STEM job growth. Great strides have been made by postsecondary institutions to recruit and retain minorities and women in STEM majors. However, as the US population continue to become more ethnically and racially diverse, researchers and university administrators must find solutions to increase women and minority participation and retention in STEM education. A goal in higher education should be increasing the numbers and strength of the STEM pipeline.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in the STEM field will grow by 14.8% during the 2012-2022 period (NSF, 2016). Increasing demand for STEM professionals will not be met if the United States does not tap into all members of society; specifically, minorities and women. Many reasons for the non-interest in STEM fields by minorities and women have been studies and researched and some of the findings have impacted policy changes and the creation of programs geared towards attracting more minorities and women to the STEM field. According to a national STEM study, from 2011 to 2015, a 1% increase to 49% was found of the students interested in STEM (ACT, 2017). This paper aims to synthesize the current literature of the reasons of underrepresentation of minorities and women in postsecondary STEM education and some of the solutions and policies that have been considered/implemented in meeting the increasing demands of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) future workforce.
In considering the future workforce needs and how to attract and retain the best available talent, education and workforce training; STEM education specifically, are critical pieces to the projected industry growth that keeps the United States at a competitive advantage. The increasing STEM labor shortage is well documented. The need for STEM knowledge and skills will continue to grow in the future. Racial/ethnic minorities and women are less likely to earn critical degrees in STEM and to enter STEM employment. The STEM economy may fail to optimize the pool of potential workers that it needs to sustain growth and innovation without stronger support for these traditionally underrepresented groups.
Students interest in STEM occurs early in their secondary education. During the high school years is when students begin to seriously consider career choices and make decisions about their STEM interest. (Constan & Spicer, 2015). However, some of these students with interest in STEM, change from a STEM major once in college or do not complete a degree. Chen (2005) found that underrepresented students were less likely to select a STEM major once enrolled in college. The literature proposes that the lack of underrepresentation students of color and women in STEM majors is connected to psychological/social barriers, structural barriers in educational access and opportunity, and responses to social stigmatization and disparities. Lack of sufficient high school academic preparation and advanced math and science coursework, lack of mentorship from faculty and role models who are of the same race, a perceived non-welcoming hostile college climate, lack of peer community, and low confidence level/”imposter” syndrome (White-Brahmia & Etkina, 2004). Concerns about paying for college and the need to work and work more hours during college are a few reasons that may limit an underrepresented student the option to major in STEM (Hurtado et al, 2010).
Dimensions of STEM Problem
There exists no one single pipeline or pathway into a STEM major. The start line for students varies due to different family backgrounds and being raised communities with different traditions and attending schools with different resources. Specific to underrepresented students of color and women in STEM are issues related to preparation, access and motivation, financial aid, academic support, and social integration (NAS et al., 2011).
To improve STEM outcomes, numerous initiatives have been implemented to expand STEM awareness and STEM education; to increase students’ interest in STEM fields and the number of STEM-ready students across the nation. In addition, many publicly and private funded programs or co-curricular support programs have been created to focus specifically on increasing the number or women and underrepresented minorities entering and persisting in STEM fields. Despite the fact that many education programs have been designed to increase the STEM student population, Jackson (2003) states that there is a lack of readily accessible information on the most promising and effective STEM programs, practices, and policies designed to increase the minority STEM participation.
The Science Study has been following over 1,4000 minorities who participated in the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program. The researchers concluded that engagement in co-curricular activities have a long-term impact on sustaining interest in science careers (Schultz, Woodcock, Estrada, Hernandez ; Chance, 2011). Students in the RISE program maintained a stronger intention to pursue a career in biomedical sciences than those who did not participate in or dropped out of the program (Schultz et al., 2011).
Interventions proven to provide access to women and underrepresented minorities in STEM majors includes summer programs that target minority students during the middle and high school years and in undergraduate, participation in research experiences in college, and professional development activities that engages minority students in networking, participation in conferences and presentations of research. In addition, academic support and exposure to social integration such as peer-to-peer support, study groups, social activities, and tutoring and engaged mentors are key to persistence and retentions of underrepresented students and women in STEM majors (NAS et al., 2011).
Many solutions and recommendations have been presented to create parity in access, persistence, and completion of women and underrepresented students of color in STEM majors. A few different solutions/recommendations from researchers and policymakers are presented.
To increase underrepresented minorities and women persistence in STEM Estrada et al. (2016) recommends increasing institutional accountability, creation of strategic partnerships with accomplished programs and programs that are working with a similar student population that “lift” students interest in STEM, unleashing the power of the science curriculum and active learning, and addressing student resource disparities that hinders underrepresented minorities and women from fully engaging in their STEM studies and participating in STEM bridge programs and opportunities.
The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine (2011) made 6 recommendations for broadening minority and women participation in STEM and identified two highest priority areas of action. Those recommendations are:
Recommendation 1: Preschool through Grade 3 Education
Prepare America’s children for school through preschool and early education programs that develop reading readiness, provide early mathematics skills, and introduce concepts of creativity and discovery.
Recommendation 2: K to 12 Mathematics and Science
Increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education for underrepresented minorities.
Recommendation 3: K-12 Teacher Preparation and Retention
Improve K-12 mathematics and science education for underrepresented minorities overall by improving the preparedness of those who teach them those subjects.
Recommendation 4: Access and Motivation
Improve access to all postsecondary education and technical training and increase underrepresented minority student awareness of and motivation for STEM education and careers through improved information, counseling, and outreach.
Recommendation 5: Affordability
Develop America’s advanced STEM workforce by providing adequate financial support to underrepresented minority students in undergraduate and graduate STEM education.
Recommendation 6: Academic and Social Support
Take coordinated action to transform the nation’s higher education institutions to increase inclusion of and college completion and success in STEM education for underrepresented minorities.
Priority 1: Undergraduate Retention and Completion: We propose, as a short-term focus for increasing the participation and success of underrepresented minorities in STEM, policies and programs that seek to increase undergraduate retention and completion through strong academic, social, and financial support. Financial support for underrepresented minorities that allows them to focus on and succeed in STEM will increase completion and better prepare them for the path ahead. This financial assistance should be provided through higher education institutions along with programs that simultaneously integrate academic, social, and professional development.
Priority 2: Teacher Preparation, College Preparatory Programs, and Transition to Graduate Study: We propose also an emphasis on teacher preparation, secondary school programs that support preparation for college STEM education, and programs that support the transition from undergraduate to graduate work. (p 11-13)
To produce a future of diverse talent STEM professionals, scholars and researchers have presented the following recommendations to policymakers and higher education leaders (BEST, 2003):
Institutional leadership: Leadership matters. Although commitment to diversity in STEM may exist at many levels on a campus, only commitment by campus administration and senior faculty ensures that the goals and paths toward increased underrepresentation participation is met.
Targeted recruitment: Attracting the best available students and faculty from under-represented groups into STEM fields is critical.
Engaged faculty: The traditional markers of academic accomplishment, such as research productivity, should not replace ongoing commitment to diversifying successful STEM student talent. Faculty must foster students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Personal attention: In the college classroom and often the academic residential setting, the value of personal attention remains high in meeting a STEM student’s needs.
Peer support: Peer-support programs enable students of all backgrounds to interact routinely and intensively with one another, as well as with students at other levels, post-docs and junior faculty.
Enriched research opportunities: Extending research opportunities beyond the classroom connects underrepresented students’ experiences to the STEM world, establishes mentors, and presents STEM career options.
Bridging to the next level: STEM needs to be integrated throughout the curricula, from elementary school through high school. This entails build both the institutional relationships and the students’ skills to enable them to progress through the educational system and envision career achievements.
Comprehensive financial assistance. Successful institutions work diligently to construct packages of merit grants and scholarships to attract and retain underrepresented students into STEM majors.
Workers in the STEM field are essential to the U.S. technological leadership, innovation, manufacturing, and services, and thus vital to U.S. economic strength, national defense, and other societal needs. As the economy becomes increasingly reliant on workers with strong quantitative and analytical skills, there is a growing need for policymakers to identify efficient ways to prepare all youth interested in careers in STEM. Many recommendations and solutions have been presented to solve the STEM underrepresented minority and women crisis. These recommendations include ensuring students access to mentors, creating more opportunities for internship, research, and bridge programs, and providing/expanding college financial aid funding that replaces student loans and work study with scholarships and merit need grants so that college affordability is possible for minorities and women selecting a STEM major. Policymakers, educators, researchers, and workforce professionals concerned with the relationship between STEM education and STEM employment, including the differences for women and racial and ethnic minorities must consider all solutions and recommendations presented to attract all young members of the country to an education and career in STEM.
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