The STEM career sectors are currently contending with an extreme lack of diversity, with many studies finding that the number of women and minority candidates for STEM jobs have actually been on the decline in recent years. In an era when the number of jobs revolving around math, science, and technology continues to rise, it is easy to trace the shortage diversity in STEM industries to a lack of representation in the academic sector.
Misconceptions about STEM professions or struggles in advanced math and science courses may dissuade students from considering STEM careers. However, all too often, students who deviate away from the STEM pipeline do so because of forces outside of their control. A strong foundation in math and science is crucial for students who hope to pursue STEM careers. However, sometimes students’ opportunities to explore these topics are determined more by where they live than the limits of their abilities.
The American STEM workforce is likely to expand to 8.6 million jobs in 2018, outpacing the growth of other industries by as much as 12 percent. Yet at the same time, students from low-income communities pursue and graduate with STEM degrees at a significantly lower rate than students from high-income families.
This is indicative of a gap in the potential number of STEM professionals who could be entering the workforce. To close this gap, Phillips Charitable Organization is working to expand access to a quality STEM education by providing engineering scholarships to aspiring students in need of a little extra support.
Ensuring that every student with an interest in STEM has the opportunity to pursue a STEM career is crucial to advance the sectors that will shape the future of humanity, such as public health, national security, and sustainability. But at the same time, facilitating these opportunities is also an important step on the path to empowering every student to reach his or her highest potential.
A Growing Issue
According to economic projections, the STEM industries in the US will need more than 1 million additional workers in the coming years. While the shortage of qualified candidates to fill STEM jobs persists, the US is falling behind the international community in science and match achievement. Economists predict that, within 10 years, students from China, India, and South Korea will comprise over half of the engineers and scientists in the world. During the same time period, America’s contribution to the global STEM workforce could drop to 10 percent.
The importance of STEM to not only the American economy, but also to the nation’s global competitiveness, makes it extremely important that all students with an interest in STEM can access the resources to pursue this interest. Even so, many students lack the most basic resources necessary for advanced studies in math and science, including modern laboratories, computers, and even internet access.
In addition, students from low-income communities often encounter fewer STEM role models that can relate to their personal backgrounds and challenges. While the struggles facing aspiring STEM professionals from low-income communities are many, there are also several ways that the national community can provide future STEM leaders with the support that they need. These strategies include:
Nurturing an Interest in STEM
It is incredibly easy for students to fall behind in the STEM academic pipeline. For this reason, it is important to inspire an interest in STEM as early in a child’s life as possible. Fortunately, a wide variety of organizations are seeking to achieve this goal in communities across America. These groups include mentoring programs, skill-based workshops, and sponsorships by companies such as NASCAR.
The education sector is also playing an increased role in inspiring students early in their academic careers. For example, the Albany College of Pharmaceutical and Health Sciences (ACPHS) recently launched an after-school program to provide STEM lessons to students from low-income neighborhoods. There are also mobile STEM workshops like the SAM Academy, which brings engaging, hands-on STEM lessons to students in underserved communities near Fresno, California.
Whatever the nature and source of STEM initiatives, the most important factor is that they expose students to the diversity of STEM career paths. For example, the ACPHS Academy did not simply focus on pharmaceutical medicine. Instead, activities ranged from robotics demonstrations to experiments with water balloons. This early exposure to STEM topics can have a huge influence on students during their formative years. For example, Experience Aviation, a STEM-focused nonprofit created by record-setting African American pilot Barrington Irving, has helped inspire nearly 90 percent of its participants to pursue STEM careers.
In addition to having the opportunity to develop a passion for STEM topics and discover their relevance to the modern world, students must build the fundamental skills that will help them access advanced opportunities in math and science. In a recent article published by US News & World Report, the dean of computer science for Carnegie Mellon University, Andrew Moore, expressed his admiration for a recent applicant who had practiced coding with a pencil and paper after school. While this man’s passion and dedication are undoubtedly worthy of praise, his situation is far from ideal.
A lack of access to resources that aid STEM studies is a common challenge. Some 10 percent of low-income families cannot afford internet access. Additionally, nearly one-third of those that have the internet can only access it via mobile devices. When a student lacks regular access to a computer, it can not only make it difficult for him or her to explore a budding interest in computer science or other advanced topics, but can also make it difficult to complete his or her homework efficiently.
Additionally, because low-income families often live in neighborhoods with financially underserved schools, students are less likely to have access to advanced opportunities in math and science that require more expensive materials. This can easily set students behind their peers in other communities, making it difficult for them to gain the experience necessary to excel at the collegiate level. Recent studies have found that, while many students from low-income backgrounds achieve high GPA’s and SAT scores, they rarely apply to leading institutions, with just 14 percent of this population attending the nation’s top 200 secondary schools.
While providing students with quality STEM resources at an early age is one of the best ways to promote diversity in the STEM pipeline, the academic community can support students from low-income communities even after they have graduated from high school. In recent years, several schools have launched initiatives to make collegiate STEM studies a more viable option for students who did not have opportunities to take advanced math and science courses in high school.
For example, the University of Washington has introduced a program that enables students to graduate with engineering degrees in five years rather than four, providing extra time for students to develop a strong foundation in the fundamentals of the discipline. Programs such as these recognize the potential of college students and seek to provide effective ways for less experienced students to catch up to their peers.
Price is also a significant barrier for many low-income students hoping to pursue STEM degrees. Many institutions are also taking this into consideration when attempting to make their STEM programs more accessible. These institutions include the Georgia Institute of Technology, which recently introduced an affordable master’s program in computer science that is delivered entirely online.
We can also make the STEM sector more accessible by introducing students to career options at varying educational levels. While a STEM degree can open the door to a plethora of career opportunities, there are also several opportunities available that do not require a four-year degree. Many of these careers are in the energy sector. This industry will hire individuals over 1 million blue-collar positions by 2035, offering jobs with a higher earning potential than most other non-STEM sectors.