Monday, October 6, 2008

More How to Increase Diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

Today there’s an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed calling for greater diversity in the fields once called vital to national security by President Bush: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (also known as the STEM fields). The piece was co-authored by Shirley M. Malcom and Daryl E. Chubin at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

They note that in the working world and in academia, the number of women and people of color are disproportionately small. The authors also noted, “At the graduate level, there is an additional problem: a declining percentage of U.S. citizens. In many departments of physics, computer science, and engineering, it is difficult to find a graduate student who is a U.S. citizen.” To me this is anecdotally true. The chemistry majors I knew in college often complained that they had a hard time understanding their TAs because they were foreign-born and didn’t speak English that well.

Xenophobic though it may be to argue that we shouldn’t be giving away our STEM field spots to foreigners, it is important to acknowledge that there are a lot of pretty strict stereotypes like the nerdy white dude or the southeast Asian grad student that might prevent, for example, a young black woman from considering a career in science or engineering.

But it’s not just as easy as recruiting more American high school students to STEM fields. We learn these stereotypes early on. Many young girls learn at an early age that that they aren’t supposed to be good with numbers, even if they are. The stereotypes are certainly less powerful than they once were, but they persist, and as a result we’re seeing a disproportionately low number of women and people of color enroll in STEM fields.

Realistically, the solution to this involves more investment in STEM fields early on, during elementary school. This is when many kids begin to fall behind in these fields (in addition to reading and other non-STEM fields) so if all kids are given the opportunity to start from the same place, more may eventually go on to be real scientists.

Cross posted on Pushback.

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