Science and engineering together are a big, fast-growing part of the US workforce – more than 5 million people. Yet, many people in the US are still left out of science and engineering jobs. A new report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) looks at the gaps, and what to do about them.
The report, “Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads” paints a dismal picture. The gap begins early, and gets wider as education progresses.
Underrepresented minorities are 38% of US public school children. But they are only 15% among masters degree students. And most frightening and obviously unbalanced, minorities are only 5% of those who finish PhD degrees.
For years, the US has had a policy to improve schools and give scholarships in science. Yet overall, the U.S. was ranked 20th out of 24 countries in getting college grads through in science or engineering. Now, for all 24 year olds, only about 3% of Blacks, 3% of First Nations peoples, 2% of Hispanics and Latinos have a 4-year college degree in science or engineering.
Where has our education policy gone wrong?
Women in the US less often choose to study science and engineering than men. In contrast, students in minority groups are just as likely to choose science as any student, but less likely to finish. Finance is a root problem, and the report calls for increased scholarships to help students finish their degrees. Even for graduate school, paid fellowships are needed for minorities.
A tale of 2 public high schools in the Bronx, in New York City – not in the report – I want to share. The high schools are known locally as Columbus, and Bronx Science, notorious for opposite reasons. I taught Biology at Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx after I finished my genetics PhD. Administration, the deans and principals, were white. More than half of the students are Hispanic, about a third are black, only 10% are Asian. Less than half of the students graduate, a quarter are not fluent in English, and a quarter need Special Ed. The majority of students live in families who receive public assistance.
The deans at Columbus treated the students in my classes like prisoners. I couldn’t get through one class without them barging in to yell at the students about something. I love science, but I’m no prison warden. Yes, it was run like a prison. Metal detectors at the entrance, patrols with megaphones, police in the halls, harsh irrational discipline, and intimidation. The students had no lab equipment, and oddly, not even as many chairs as students in the room. And so I wonder, how are they going to love science? I taught, or tried to, for one week, and then spent 2 weeks doing nothing, trying to figure out what went wrong. I went back to the research lab I was familiar with, and continued work at my post doctoral fellowship.
What a contrast this was to Bronx High School of Science, where my daughter was a student about 10 years later. It is also a public school, but it is a “specialized high school”. These students get a tremendously privileged education and receive the best of equipment and instruction of the New York City public school system. More than half of the student body are Asian-60%. Only 4% of students are black, and about 8% are Hispanic. At Bronx Science, the makeup of the student body has very little in common with the population who live around the school. Unlike some places, New York City does not take race into account to balance the student population. It’s based on an entry exam alone. This is a policy that could easily be changed. From high school on, it is clear that the educational opportunities for minorities are grossly unbalanced.
Beyond school years, the IOM report shows minorities are still not included equally in the tech workforce, not like they could be. So, who is succeeding in science and technology in the US? The answer is not a surprise if you have worked in science and engineering. Today it is not U.S. citizens, but visitors from China and India, who fill the expanding job market, according to the new report.
The experts call for immediate large-scale education reform.
Key points from the report:
1. The problem of minorities being left out of science and engineering is urgent. It will be for a long time.
2. The nation must address the gap in participation and success.
3. Change is needed at each step where students are being lost, from preschool to grad school.
4. Students who miss out on science in high school need more intense help and financial support.
5. More support is needed for specific cultures and specific places.
6. Research on the minority experience in science and engineering is needed.
What do you think would help encourage students in the US to continue on in science and engineering?