Creating Pathways to Higher Education and Career Service Part II: The Racial STEM Gap

by DeVan Hankerson on October 22, 2014

This month, MMTC Research Director DeVan Hankerson spoke at the National Action Network on “Creating Pathways to Higher Education and Career Service.” With other panelists, DeVan discussed inequality in broadband access in schools and how technology is changing career options, education, and skills preparation for students. We present her remarks in a two-part series highlighting the skills shortage in the U.S. and the dearth of minority students and employees in STEM fields.

Boy on Computer - LEAD CommissionFrom smartphones to social media, people of color are the fastest-growing group of new technology users. Experts have reported that people of color are more likely than whites to use that technology to keep up with what’s happening in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, how people use technology does not equate to mastery.

One of the challenges to increasing mastery of new technology is making sure that the push toward inclusion and training is not limited to offering schools access to gadgets and tools. It must also include meaningful ways to expand the aspirations of young minority students to include career as technology innovators and as knowledge workers in technology development.

The pervading racial STEM gap

A Department of Education study on STEM entrants enrolled in four-year degree programs found that 29 percent of African American students and 23 percent of Hispanic students who enrolled with a STEM focus left without a degree or certificate, as compared to the baseline of only 20 percent attrition in the general population. In addition, 36 percent of African Americans and 26 percent of Hispanics switched majors to non-STEM fields, as compared to 28 percent of students in the general population.

There are many factors and circumstances that predict a likelihood of attrition from STEM degrees, even after controlling for demographic characteristics, according to the study. The four greatest predictors are: (1) pre-college academic preparation, (2) STEM course taking in the first year, (3) the type of math courses taken in the first year, and (4) performance in these courses. This data indicates that even after students make the decision to major in a STEM field, their precollege foundation and first year performance play a vital role in their ability to succeed.

Unfortunately, there are additional disparate factors that come into play for minorities with an interest in STEM fields. According to ACT’s 2013 National STEM Report, of Hispanic students with both expressed and measured interest in STEM fields, 44 percent met math benchmarks and 33 percent met science benchmarks; for Native American students, 32 percent met math benchmarks and 25 percent met science benchmarks; and for African American students, 24 percent met math benchmarks and 18 percent met science benchmarks. Comparatively, 79 and 64 percent of Asian students met math and science benchmarks, respectively, while 64 and 59 percent of whites did.

Although this data reflects poorly on the entire U.S. education system as a whole, the lack of preparation in African American, Hispanic, and Native American students is alarming.

There is a disconnect between minority students and STEM careers

The disconnect between minority students and STEM careers is complex and multi-dimensional. While there are students who demonstrate STEM competence and achievement – many of whom have received quality instruction – they may struggle to see themselves as potential scientists because they cannot link the work of science to their lives, goals, and perceptions of who does science.

Even if students are exposed to good STEM instruction and even as they gain STEM skills and competencies, many students may not be able to see themselves as a part of the STEM community. Having a well-developed science identity includes competence in science, understanding of science, and recognizing oneself as a “science person.”

On the other hand, there are students who are interested in science and math but have not had the proper preparation. In addition to barriers to quality math, science, and technology instruction, the primary challenges are STEM interest among minority students, STEM aspirations, and STEM identity.

Clearly, parents, educators, communities, and thought leaders need a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and the opportunities to provide much-needed support in order for students of color to aspire and be prepared for careers in technology-related fields.

Making the link between STEM and students’ lives and goals is part of the equation when it comes to ensuring that students continue down a path that will lead them toward a career in technology- and math-focused areas.

Crucial steps in resolving the STEM gap

Engaging students, and particularly minority students, in STEM education early in the elementary school years makes a significant difference in students’ achievement and their intent to major in STEM. However, the positive impact of early engagement on STEM learning and STEM interest must also be complemented with quality and effective teaching, which can be lacking in schools with limited resources.

For under-resourced schools, creative, school-linked solutions through public/private partnerships that support a technology-focused curriculum can go a long way. In New York, Citizen Schools partners with companies like Google, Cisco, and others to supplement its curriculum with expanded learning days for middle school students in low-income areas. Similarly, the American Museum of Natural History offers a Science Research Mentoring Program thanks to donations from private foundations and Kaplan, Inc.

The private sector has also provided numerous opportunities for youth and adults outside the classroom. Washington, DC-based LivingSocial offers the HungryAcademy program, where students work with and are mentored by the industry’s best programmers, learn how to build successful products using software development tools, and are granted the opportunity to join Living Social’s engineering team. Chicago-based Blacks in Technology offers a 19-week “Dev Bootcamp,” among other resources, for people interested in obtaining software development skills.

Software development is not the only pathway available for those interested in STEM careers. AT&T has a special initiative on preparing young people for STEM careers through its ASPIRE program and has done an incredible job supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

It takes a village…

There is no silver bullet to resolving the STEM gap in the United States. The reasons for the gap are varied and multifaceted, and it takes a similarly multifaceted approach to provide our students with the foundation they need to succeed in our technology-driven society. To be clear, there is much work to be done, but collaborative efforts between parents, teachers, schools, government, and the private sector are proving to be a great start.

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