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To Solve America's STEM Crisis, Educators Should Encourage Minority Students

For the past few years, the STEM crisis in the United States has regularly made headlines, with many suggesting that for America to remain competitive in the global economy, this achievement gap must narrow—this can only be done in harnessing as much diverse talent as possible by recruiting and retaining more women and people of color.

Until recently, those hoping to solve the STEM pipeline issue have centered their focus on reforming elementary and middle school science education. But so far, these efforts have been nigh, as college graduation rates for women and minority students in STEM programs remain stagnant.

The solutions to bridging the gap in STEM fields are not easy, as they will require a number of systemic changes in academia, including providing more support for children at early ages of development, support and encouragement of female and minority success in high school classrooms, and addressing STEM department chair bias at colleges and universities.

Encouraging Interest in STEM Classes from an Early Age

STEM classes are often viewed as subjects that children either love, or hate, and traditionally offer very little room for ambivalence. From a young age, especially, girls tend to gravitate towards subjects such as English and Social Studies, and report that they don't like Science and Math courses, even if they earn good grades in Science and Math. But when presented in a different format, students of all genders tend to enjoy the hard sciences much more.

"I recently asked a group of Girl Scouts what they thought about STEM subjects: Did they enjoy them? Did they think they are good at them?" Lifehacker author, Melanie Pinola writes." I heard a resounding no from the majority of the room. And yet when we did some activities (a real-life Move the Turtle game to mimic programming, for example), each one of them was involved, and yes, interested...There's something about these subjects that make kids think they either love them or hate them absolutely...there's no middle ground."

By simply presenting STEM courses in a way which has the potential to appeal to students, who are already immersed in technology in their day to day lives, it's entirely possible to create a pathway for students hoping to move forward as they traverse their education. By making STEM courses more hands on, praising the learning process over their final grade, and include STEM related activities in a child's day to day life.

Provide Adequate Support and Encouragement in Years Leading Up to College

National surveys have found that nearly 65 percent of students say that they are hesitant to pursue STEM careers largely because they don't have role models in the field, or they are unsure about what STEM graduates do. Equally worrisome is that student interest in 8-12th grade, more so than achievement, is the strongest predictor of a student pursuing a STEM degree.

This is an a challenge that industry leaders, teachers, and counselors can make a difference. Access to counselors has been proven to increase college enrollment rates, and if properly connected to the community, counselors can help bring in mentors and experts to help pique student interest in STEM subjects. Similarly, teachers can make a concerted effort to make learning accessible and fun, while also helping students with career development.

In order to increase diverse student enrollment, an "all hands on deck" approach will be necessary in years to come, where students, parents, and school administrators work together in order to increase the number of students in STEM.

Addressing Bias at Colleges and Universities

Underrepresented minority students pledge to study STEM subjects in college at roughly the same rates as their majority counterparts, but many end up changing subjects or dropping out of college all together.

A recent Bayer survey of faculty chairs of STEM departments at the nation's top 200 research universities reveal a lot of disconnects when it comes to educating women and minority students.

According to the survey, many department chairs argue that there is no underrepresentation of female students in their STEM courses. Furthermore, they believe female students arrive at college more than prepared to be successful in a rigorous STEM program.

Despite this, they also admit that their departments grant far more STEM degrees to male students than female students. Data like this suggests that although women are qualified and have the skills and desire necessary to move forward in STEM careers, women still face persistent sexism and stereotypes that say STEM isn't a place for women. The same can be said of minority students.

Furthermore, introductory college courses in STEM fields are often more rigorous, and used as means to weed out potential students early in the academic process--further proof that in STEM courses especially, initial talent is valued higher than the process of learning and mastering a subject through hard work. While many deans agree that this approach disproportionately affects women and minority students, many are unwilling to take a step back and reevaluate their methods. In fact, many admit that it's common practice for faculty and staff to discourage students from pursuing STEM careers if they don't show promise from the get go.

Though these findings may be grim, but a number of institutions have worked to change the way their departments function in order to best meet the needs of students and the demands of the workforce.

America has one of the most refined higher education institutions in the world, with public research universities consistently leading in innovation and educational rigor. But no institution can function properly without criticism, and as the STEM crisis grows more profound, American universities will quickly need to adapt to meet the needs of an ever expansive globalized job market.

In order to encourage more women and minority students to pursue careers in STEM education, change must be enacted throughout numerous levels of education, K-12 through college, and transform from an environment that makes--not breaks--a new generation of diverse STEM graduates.

Posted by DanikaK at August 30, 2016 6:36 PM
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STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics.

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