How to Diversify Students in Science and Technology

How to Diversify Students in Science and Technology
AP Photo/Brett Carlsen

Numerous efforts focus on increasing and diversifying the next generation of leaders in science and technology. And while we have experienced some success, a study published in the journal Educational Researcher shares important information on where we need to continue to focus our efforts.

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The study notes that though black and Hispanic students enroll in STEM majors at college at rates proportionate to white students, those populations leave those majors at far higher rates than their white peers. In fact, 26% of black STEM majors left their institutions without earning a degree, while only 13% of white STEM majors dropped out.

This indicates that while our critical efforts to build an interest in STEM fields among young black and Hispanic students are working and must continue, more attention needs to be paid to support students once they enroll in college to ensure retention and their success in attaining a degree.

Here are three ways we can support more students to persist in their pursuit of a STEM degree:

1.) Create an inclusive culture. Currently, the professors at America’s universities do not reflect the diversity of our population. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2016, of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, only 3 percent each were Black males, Black females, and Hispanic males.

If we want all students to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion, we need to have more professors who look like the students we’re trying to recruit.

2.) Provide ongoing support for students of color through college and career. Recognizing that black men and women who enter schools of engineering will be in the minority and taught mostly by teachers who do not represent their backgrounds, our high schools, universities, and companies must invest significant attention to ensure these young people feel connected, supported, and guided throughout their education and into their careers.

For example, my organization, the National Society of Black Engineers, offers a retention program for collegiate chapters that provides mentoring, tutoring, and skill development workshops to help post-secondary members feel engaged and supported. One study found that an African American engineering student who is a NSBE member is ten times more likely to graduate. Additionally, our Retention Toolkit offers deans and other college leaders practical steps for supporting success of underrepresented minority students. Programs like these need to be active and visible across all institutions.

3.) Improve financial aid programs and policies, both at the federal and state levels. The cost of higher education is a major barrier for young people to attain a college degree, particularly first-generation students and students of color. 

We need to ensure our existing programs, from state and federal aid to scholarships, work better for our students. These programs need to be simplified, more widely communicated, and better funded for our students.

This work is doable, and we owe it to our students to make sure we are creating environments within higher education where they can succeed and thrive. We must foster the potential of young people, strengthen the skills of college students, and support networks of engineers. Our young people deserve equitable and wide pathways for them to enter the field of engineering, and in turn, the economy will benefit from it. 

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