Women make up nearly half the college-aged population in the United States, yet only a third of degrees and certificates awarded in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are earned by female graduates. Hispanics and blacks are similarly underrepresented. These findings, reported by Change the Equation, a coalition of business leaders dedicated to strengthening STEM education, point to part of the problem, and a possible solution, to the shortage of workers trained in STEM fields.STEM & America’s competitive edge in the global economy
For the past decade, leaders in the tech industry have warned that a failure of the U.S. education system to produce STEM-skilled workers puts the nation in danger of losing its competitive edge in the global economy. Innovations in STEM fields drive economic expansion and create good jobs. A shortage of skilled labor has caused industry leaders, such as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, to call on Congress to implement immigration reforms that will allow more foreign workers to fill the skills gap.
Minorities under-represented in STEM jobs
Meanwhile, African-Americans, who make up nearly 11 percent of the workforce, and Hispanics, who make up 15 percent of the workforce, each fill less than 6.5 percent of STEM jobs. These same groups suffer the highest rates of poverty in the country, with 35 percent of African-Americans and 33 percent of Hispanics living below the federal poverty level. Wages in STEM occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are generally higher than the median for all occupations, suggesting that a focus on STEM education for minorities will help improve their economic situation as well as fill the nation’s shortage of skilled labor.
Identifying causes and finding solutions to inequities in STEM education
The National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) provides training, tools and resources for educators to improve enrollment, retention and completion rates of girls and minorities in STEM programs. NAPE’s STEM Equity Pipeline works with secondary and post-secondary schools to determine the causes and possible solutions to the underrepresentation of woman and minorities in STEM. Among suggestions for closing the gap are target recruitment activities, engage parents, collaborate with groups such as the Girl Scouts and provide role models, mentoring and job shadowing.
Providing access & inspiration to women & minorities
Educating more woman and minorities in STEM fields presents a challenge for policy makers. It is a duel task of providing access and inspiration. Change the Equation reports that schools with majority minority populations often lack the resources to provide advanced math and science courses. Many studies have found that while woman have made great strides in achieving equality in the workplace, gender stereotypes influence girls at an early age. These cultural norms change slowly, and many girls still do not consider STEM occupations an appropriate career choice for women.
To combat the social bias that often steers girls away from STEM fields, organizations such as Girlstart, an Austin, Texas non-profit, work to engage young girls in science, technology and math before cultural norms subliminally close these options in a girl’s mind. Girlstart offers after school and Saturday programs, summer camps and resources for educators all geared towards making STEM exciting and relevant for girls.
On the college level, University of California at Santa Cruz’s STEM Diversity Programs offers minority undergraduates opportunities to pursue STEM research. Two of the programs provide biomedical research training and two are open to all areas of STEM. The STEM Diversity programs provide students with study groups, tutoring, scholarships, travel to conferences and opportunities to present their research.
While tapping talent from other countries will help fill the shortage of STEM-skilled workers, the United States has plenty of untapped potential at home. Increasing STEM education opportunities for minorities and women will go a long way to filling the skills gap. Highlighting the success of non-stereotypical engineers, mathematicians and scientists will help to breakdown cultural biases. Programs that support students’ efforts can mitigate the challenges faced by minorities willing to take on the challenges of STEM study.
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Gillian Burdett is a freelance writer covering all things home and living. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.