5 Tips from Professors: Advice to Increase Diversity in STEM fields

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Background: Where STEM diversity is now

Today only 18.3% and 12.1% of STEM students who get computer science and engineering degrees are from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, respectively. Given that our country’s demographics are rapidly evolving, the rate at which we’re educating minorities in these highly skilled and strong demand fields is severely disproportionate. Dr. Lorelle Espinosa, UCLA alum and Senior Analyst with Abt Associates, notes how “Latinos are projected to make up nearly one third of the nation’s population by 2050 and 19% of the civilian labor force by 2020. Yet they earned just 7 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields in 2009.” Such figures emphasize why increasing diversity must be a high priority.

Why STEM diversity matters:

Increasing diversity in the STEM fields enables more innovation in the science and engineering fields because people from different backgrounds bring diverse and more effective solutions to problem solving. In order to accomplish this, diversity in STEM must be encouraged early on in students’ academic lives—from their middle school classrooms and college laboratories leading all the way up to their jobs and occupations that improve the daily lives of everyone. This is why policy makers, universities, and communities are taking action to diversify the field.

Moreover, this gap is such a threat to American competitiveness that Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) introduced the Women and Minorities in STEM Booster Act of 2013 to increase diversity.  According to Sen. Landrieu, “The STEM Booster Act is a great way to expand the talent pool in STEM disciplines, which will not only increase diversity in math and science programs, but also make America more competitive in the global economy.”

But outside of policy, how can this permeating gap be closed and how can we encourage more diversity in the STEM field?

NerdScholar talked to academics in the STEM field—experts with backgrounds from organic chemistry to computer science and engineering backgrounds. Here are the 5 pieces of advice they have to increase diversity in STEM.

Tip #1: Students from diverse backgrounds should get involved early

To prevent a lack of diversity in STEM and creating a highly insular community, students should get involved with STEM classes and activities early one in their academic experience. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology alum and Executive Director of the Art of Problem Solving Foundation Daniel Zaharopol suggests, “students should do math clubs or contests, summer programs, robotics contests, read science blogs, and get in the game!”

Many times students will feel like they have not had the right experiences because they haven’t explored and challenged themselves to find out whether experimenting in STEM activities will make them happy and spur further interest. This is why minority students should research what local programs are offered to them.

For instance, a local program like the partnership between the University of Akron (UA), Akron Public Schools (APS), The City of Akron, Akron Greater Chamber/Akron Tomorrow, and Invent Now is helping students get a STEM experience early on in their academic career. This collaborative, highlighted by Professor of General Technology-Physics at the University of Akron Susan Ramlo, even helped create a STEM focused middle and high school.  Students at these schools are selected by a lottery process so as to fairly represent the Akron, OH community and they have the opportunities to interact with UA faculty and STEM professionals in the region at a very early age.

Another example of a great program that helps students from diverse backgrounds get involved early is the OPTIONS in Engineering and Computer Science Program for High School women, which is a residential one-week long summer camp sponsored by the University of Evansville College of Engineering. Dr. Deborah J. Hwang, Director and Associate Professor at the University of Evansville, has been an instructor and mentor since 1996. Besides learning about the STEM fields, students in Evansville, Indiana have the opportunity to interact with working professionals, university faculty, and college women who provide a model of what a path in the STEM career path would look like.

Tip #2: Own your education and focus on math and science

STEM careers are heavily focused on math and science.  Consequentially, students from diverse backgrounds should make aggressive goals to practice their math and science. This will help them develop and apply their problem-solving skills in these subjects.

President of the Oregon Institute of Technology, Christopher Maples, says, “I would advise any underrepresented groups to focus on math and writing/presentation skills.  Yes, writing and presenting.  Math is the language of STEM in many respects.  Writing is how anyone succeeds in making their point on paper to other people.  Presentation is how you get people’s attention initially or otherwise get your point across in a short, concise manner.” So not only must students sharpen their math and science skills but they must also know how to leverage that knowledge and apply it to problem-solving situations.

Some of the biggest barriers for African Americans and Hispanics are low expectations and no exposure to rigorous curriculum. Sue Rosser, Provost at San Francisco State University and Author of Breaking into the Lab: Engineering for Women in Science, reinforces this notion because the simple act of taking rigorous math and science courses, like AP calculus or AP physics, made a huge difference for her. When she got to college, she was not “behind” and by leveraging support programs like tutoring; she was able to switch from humanities to a STEM major. The bottom line is that she owned her education and made her change to STEM successful. Students from diverse backgrounds should feel empowered to do the same.

Tip #3: Find STEM professionals who can serve as mentors

Despite the fact that there is a disproportionate number of STEM faculty and professionals from minority backgrounds, students should reach out to mentors and those who they look up to. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek counsel from science teachers or even a local STEM professional from whom you would like to learn more about their career. As University of Evansville Professor Deborah J. Hwang put it, “finding someone who can help explain the expectations of the field and provide timely encouragement along with personal perseverance goes a long way in attaining success.”

Such mentorship creation efforts are displayed at Wesley College, a minority serving institution with a 52% African American and Hispanic student body, which has consistently retained a diverse STEM undergraduate class through their Directed Research STEM program.  Established in 2002 by Dr. D’Souza, the initiative requires students to have a “research experience” where they are paired with a faculty mentor and have to carry out a STEM related project.  More than 80% of the programs’ participants, including students from underrepresented populations, have received scholarships and gained admission to graduate and professional programs. Students should make it a goal to seek mentorship opportunities by which you can shadow STEM professionals and learn about their career trajectories.

Tip #4: Experiment and don’t be afraid to make mistakes—pursue research opportunities to put your education into action 

In order for students from diverse backgrounds to embrace the STEM field, they have to pursue research opportunities in the math, science, and engineering fields.

Oregon Tech President Christopher Maples pointed out how they involve STEM youth early via the South Metro/Salem STEM Partnership. This collaboration of school districts, community colleges, and universities aims to diversify and increase STEM participation by forming learning communities and connecting business and community resources to schools.

Furthermore, UC Davis alum and scientist Margaret Reece had this advice, “If a young Latino or African American would like to be a scientist, engineer, mathematician he/she should start talking to faculty at the university they would like to attend.  College faculty love to talk about what they are doing and are always on the lookout for new-interested students to bring into their fold. They can begin with Stanford if they live in California or with Harvard if they live on the east coast.  Finances can always be worked out.”

Tip #5: Seek diverse opinions from peers, teachers, and mentors 

Increasing diversity in STEM will involve harnessing the power of diverse opinions and expertise to catapult more innovation in the field. Students need to appreciate and embrace collaboration in the classroom when they are experimenting because it leads to sounder problem solving. For instance, learn from your team building experiences and ask others for their opinion. In science, peer-review strengthens findings and discoveries.

Professor Malcolm J. D’Souza, Ph.D of Chemistry at Wesley College puts it this way, “Having diversity in STEM programs encourages multiple problem solving strategies that enrich the fields of science & math. It makes the STEM fields resilient as students working in such environments have to collaborate and hence, the participants are made aware of a variety of perspectives. Such collaborative efforts invariably result in significantly improved innovative solutions/applications which in turn provide better (global) products.”

It is vitally important for students and schools alike to cultivate collaborative environments where problems are solved from multiple angles and conclusions are reached through open dialogue and deliberation. Cultivating this will help create more diversity in STEM.