Diversity in STEM Education is Important

Stephen DeAngelis

October 09, 2020

We are experiencing a period of social unrest that once again illuminates the destructive nature of racial prejudice. Most articles about diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) focus on gender inequality; however, racial inequality is another area deserving attention. A year ago (September 2019) Calvin Mackie (@calvinmackie), an African-American and founder of a non-profit organization called STEM NOLA, was given the Chair Award by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) for his work in equity and access in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).[1] At the awards banquet, Mackie was seated near the late Congressman John Lewis. About this experience, Mackie writes, “After being honored and receiving the award, I returned to my table. As I approached my seat, Congressmen Lewis caught my eye, he nodded and mouthed ‘Congratulations! Keep Fighting!'” Since being honored, Mackie indicates he has thought often about Congressman Lewis’ encouragement to keep fighting. “I have thought about injustice,” he writes, “and I have particularly thought about the economic, technological, and historical inequity and systemic racism in STEM education and the communities that are challenged to get relevant and quality access to STEM education so that they can acquire the currency of the today, tomorrow, and the future… STEM! We must acknowledge, accept, act, and right the clear and present inequities and racism in STEM!”

The deck is stacked against children of color

According to journalist Linda Jacobson (@lrj417), a recent report found, “Harsh discipline like corporal punishment, separating preschoolers with disabilities from their peers, and too few high-quality programs for English and dual language learners are among the ‘structural inequities’ holding back young children of color from a successful start in school. And those disadvantages have only intensified as a result of the pandemic and the national protests over police violence.”[2] She notes that authors of the report include “15 contributors from 11 universities and organizations.” The contributors wrote, “Our systems have created barriers that stack the deck against many children — and they have to climb over those barriers before they are out of diapers.”  They conclude by calling on national, state and local leaders to “seize this moment as an opportunity for positive change.” Of course, children of color don’t just experience disadvantages in the early years of education, they experience discrimination and barriers throughout their lives.

Even when people of color persevere and earn advanced STEM degrees, they continue to confront racial prejudice. Black scientist and professor Edward J. Smith recalls a time when he took a sabbatical to join a research group. When he first entered the lab where the research was to be conducted, he asked one of the researchers in the group whether the principal investigator was in. The researcher asked, “Are you delivering a package? I can pass it on to him.” He writes, “These and other encounters imply that, no matter how productive my research is or how professionally I present myself, I and other black scientists do not belong in academia’s hallowed halls. … Experience made me feel that, to others, my skin color was more important than the quality of my work.”[3]

Cary Funk (@surveyfunk), director of science and society research at Pew Research Center, and Kim Parker (@kim_c_parker), director of social trends research at Pew Research Center, report, “Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math jobs, relative to their presence in the overall U.S. workforce, particularly among workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher.”[4] They continue, “Among STEM workers, blacks stand out for their concerns that there is too little attention paid to increasing racial and ethnic diversity at work, their high rates of experience with workplace discrimination and their beliefs that blacks are not usually met with fair treatment in hiring decisions or in opportunities for promotion and advancement where they work.”

It will take ‘good trouble’ to diversify STEM fields

Mackie notes, “On March 1, 2020, [Representative] Lewis spoke atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge and shouted ‘Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.’ … There are inequities and racism across the American economy including STEM Education and the STEM community. Rep. Lewis challenged us when he said: ‘When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; You have to do something!’ Doing that something is what I see as ‘Good Trouble in STEM’. And this Good Trouble is not hard to find.” An example of the kind of good trouble to which Mackie refers was a June 2020 protest during which thousands of scientists, engineers, researchers, publishers, and professional societies walked off their jobs in an effort to get decision-makers “to take action on the historical inequalities in STEM fields that are no different than the inequities everywhere else.” Actions recommended to address racial prejudice and inequality offered by minority STEM professionals include:[5]

  • Emphasizing STEM subjects as early as in elementary school as possible so the opportunities are considered as much of a viable career path as other vocations.
  • Continuing to build on early education by establishing STEM clubs and activities. Provide information to parents about local/community STEM events for continued interests. Most of all, make sure that any STEM student has the rigorous preparation that will be needed to get them accepted into college and able to handle the nature of the college level classes.
  • Providing upgraded computers and/or science labs in inner-city schools, libraries and community centers.
  • Exposing students to successful people of color currently in the STEM industries. Provide students with mentors, tutoring and opportunities to experience various fields early on in education.
  • Providing hands-on learning that is educational, fun and teaches students to learn through doing/building the work so they can see an end result instead.

I am particularly fond of the last suggestion. That’s why, along with a few colleagues, I helped establish the The Project for STEM Competitiveness — a project-based, problem-solving approach to STEM education helping schools near where we live demonstrate to students that STEM subjects can be fun and applicable in their lives. We believe learning how to solve everyday problems will help students in every aspect of their lives by teaching them to think critically about how they can overcome challenges. Working together in group projects can help students learn soft skills as well as understanding larger social problems that need addressing.

In addition to raising a generation of educated children, we need to help retrain and reskill people of color already in the workforce. Mackie explains, “Workforce development is another area in STEM ripe for Good Trouble, Necessary Trouble. The consulting company McKinsey & Co. recently published a report entitled, ‘The Future of Work in Black America,’ projecting that automation may disrupt 4.5 million jobs held by African Americans over the next 10 years. It is believed that automation which consists of Artificial Intelligence, machine language and robot will replace low-wage, low-skills jobs in the near future. Many are afraid that the Covid-19 pandemic will hasting the shift to automation in the American economy.” Workers who could be made redundant by automation need help to remain relevant employees and active contributors to the national economy.

Concluding thoughts

Professor Smith notes, “Despite the hostility, both blatant and subtle, that I have experienced in the corridors of science, and still encounter, I’m glad that I stayed here. I believe that the career I have carved out for myself will help pave the way for future generations of underrepresented minority scientists to thrive, and for all members of the scientific community to be more culturally sensitive than those who came before them.” As a country, we cannot afford to disregard the potential contributions of many brilliant individuals simply because of the color of their skin. We can do better. We need to do better. The future relies on it.

Footnotes
[1] Calvin Mackie, “Diversity Is Essential In STEM. Here’s How People Are Organizing ‘Good Trouble’ To Make A Change.” Forbes, 5 August 2020.
[2] Linda Jacobson, “Report: Deck Stacked Against Young Children of Color, but Leaders Can ‘Seize This Moment’ to Improve Equity,” The 74, 14 July 2020.
[3] Edward J. Smith, “Doing science while black,” Science, 30 September 2016.
[4] Cary Funk and Kim Parker, “Blacks in STEM jobs are especially concerned about diversity and discrimination in the workplace,” Pew Research Center, 9 January 2018.
[5] Ibid.