According to US News and World Report, there is some debate as to whether there continues to be an excess of STEM jobs, waiting to be filled.  What is not debated is that these jobs pay well, include a variety of fields (e.g. finance, IT, biochemistry), and won’t disappear anytime soon.   Yet, minority groups are underrepresented in these fields. In his article “Our Nation Needs to Fix the Breach in the STEM Pipeline”, author Karl Reid cites a few statistics:

  • Out of the four million 9th graders who began high school in 2001, fewer than 300,000 majored in STEM fields and fewer than half had graduated with a STEM degree by 2011
  • African Americans make up one to two percent of the aforementioned graduates
  • Only 14% of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch tested at a proficient level in science
  • Overall, African Americans make up 3.9% of scientists, according to the National Science Foundation

The author goes on to suggest some recommendations to reverse this trend, citing efforts to keep and retain students in STEM fields through university graduation. These include:

  • Inquiry based and applied learning approach in K-12
  • Experiential Learning (specifically, the approach by David Kold and Ron Fry at the Saturday Engineering and Enrichment Lab at MIT
  • A move away from “theory first” approaches at the university level
  • Bridge programs for freshman engineering students to keep them in STEM programs

In another article by the Hechinger Report, this “leaky STEM pipeline” has a much larger gap. A longitudinal study of 8,000 kindergartners tracked their understanding of the physical and social world, math scores and reading scores.   What researchers found was that the best predictor of their success in science was their knowledge of how the world works (e.g. “What does a fireman do?”). While there is little connection between roles people play and science, researchers suggest that there are general dispositions that contribute to performing well in this discipline.

What was surprising is that the gap continued in the 3rd, 5th and 8th grade for almost all groups. (Asians were the exception but more research needs to be conducted as to why). Income and family background could not explain it entirely. Racial trends were significant, with African Americans and Hispanics having the largest gaps in science, even when reading and math scores were similar to that of Whites.

More research into early elementary interventions, particularly for low income and minority students, is needed to further unpack this data.

While the underrepresentation of minorities in STEM fields is clear, the solutions are complicated. Programs that begin at the high school level may start students too late, as they may be years behind in the skills of inquiry, questioning, observation, and testing a hypothesis, despite the fact that they may be at or above reading levels in math and science. Even if students continue through college, many will switch majors early on, particularly if they are in college classes with few supports (e.g. peer study groups).

These studies do suggest that a pedagogy that includes a constructivist approach will allow students to make meaning out the world, thereby encouraging their curiosity, questioning and desire to learn and opening up the STEM fields to a more diverse and inclusive segment of the population.