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Journal of Hispanic Policy

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

STEM, Shoots, and Leaves: Increasing Access of Underrepresented Groups to High-Quality, Career-Readying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education

Labor projections indicate that over the next decade, a gap of more than a million jobs requiring science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills will develop in the United States. A million more workers with STEM skills than our educational system is on track to prepare will be needed (PCAST 2012). At the same time, Latino youth will show the greatest increase in college enrollment (39 percent) by 2017 (WHIEEH 2011). However, evidence indicates that these students are less likely than the average student to complete postsecondary STEM degrees (National Science Foundation 2012). This means that the “million-worker” STEM skills gap is likely an underestimate unless STEM education reform can improve the experience of learning science for students in general and improve STEM degree completion rates for Latino students in particular.

News reports in 2012 presage this jobs gap. Even as unemployment persists, certain industrial sectors proclaim that they are seeking to fill well-paying jobs but cannot find sufficiently qualified candidates. Some level of unemployment will always exist, but narrowing the gap in many high-skill labor sectors is feasible provided there is an examination of what these so-called STEM-capable jobs require and what schools, employers, and governments must do to make up the difference.

A visibility problem complicates the STEM jobs gap, which persists despite a pool of overqualified candidates. Even as experienced senior scientists languish looking for work, their particular salary or intellectual expectations are not ideal for these jobs. From the vantage of STEM academics, there is an overproduction of STEM PhDs seeking to join their ranks, so it may seem that the pipeline is overflowing. But it is exactly this focus on the top layer that distracts from the larger workforce problem.

The middle-skill character of the jobs gap is a curse and a blessing. The good news is that the majority of the future’s unfilled jobs require more than a high-school diploma but no more than a four-year degree; many currently underqualified job seekers may be close to attaining the skills they need. This is fortunate because if the newly created jobs of the near future did require more advanced levels of training, the nation would need to build university capacity to make significant progress in producing these additional master’s or doctorate degree holders. The bad news is that producing these degrees is where most prestigious institutions of higher learning traditionally focus, to the detriment of more incremental postsecondary education. Only five million (about 3.5 percent) of U.S. jobs go to scientists and engineers with STEM degrees; most STEM job growth over the next decade will not be in “expert” university teaching or government research. About 30 percent of 2018 jobs will require education only at the level of an associate’s degree or a technical training certificate (National Science Foundation 2012; Carnevale et al. 2011).

A greater diversity of women and underrepresented minorities is still needed at expert levels, particularly in engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences. The greatest need in coming years will be for bachelor’s or associate’s level STEM degrees. Focusing efforts to produce more STEM degree holders at various incremental levels will have the subsidiary effect of increasing the pool of adults who have the habit of mind to pursue additional STEM degrees in the future.

The Importance of Postsecondary STEM

The employment sectors expected to see the most growth are “STEM-capable”—they require postsecondary levels of math, biology, technology, or engineering knowledge, even though the day-to-day tasks of these jobs may only rely on these skills part of the time. For example, new jobs in health care will require facility with electronic health records and operation of specialized biomedical equipment. In recent decades, the outsourcing of both service and manufacturing jobs abroad has both eliminated jobs and driven down wages for those that remain stateside. Future manufacturing jobs in the United States are likely to be highly technological, even as white-collar work moves abroad with greater ease as access to broadband Internet increases. For this reason, the educational bar is being raised for the desk jobs and factory jobs of the twenty-first century that do remain in the United States. Employers in America expect value added from their American employees to offset the higher cost of doing business close to home.

Numerous task forces have collected promising ideas for reforming the postsecondary STEM experience. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has suggested that much of the expected STEM jobs gap could be filled by retaining students who are interested in STEM as high school students and are well-prepared for college, but nevertheless are lost to other majors in their first years of undergraduate studies (PCAST 2012). Unlike the “pull” away from STEM careers described by Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, where individuals with STEM skills are eventually attracted to jobs that are “STEM-related” but pay more than “pure” STEM careers, and his coauthors Nicole Smith and Michelle Melton (2011), this undergraduate drain of STEM-interested students to other majors is often due to a “push” to leave science and math disciplines that students feel before they have STEM skills in hand.

The council’s recommendation to retain these students is that undergraduate coursework in STEM must more closely resemble real scientific research and discovery. Less reliance on lectures or labs with no room for self-discovery of scientific principles is more attractive to students, improves mastery and retention of concepts, and is better training for the future. Group work and experimentation will stimulate high achievers from all backgrounds, but has also been shown to improve outcomes for students who are less well-prepared (Deslauriers 2011), because a deconstructed classroom allows for more parallel discovery than one in which questions and answers happen only between instructor and the student who wins the hand-raising race. Retaining those who are under-stimulated but well-prepared is only one problem. More than half of students who enroll in higher education have no degree eight years later; the degree completion rate has been in decline as more and more students choose college, especially because most increased enrollment has occurred at less competitive institutions (Bound 2009). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Completion by Design” is one effort to improve completion rates.

The Role of Community Colleges

Community colleges are well-positioned to be hubs for STEM-capable degrees. They are geographically well-dispersed, have a history of working with local businesses and nontraditional students, are more likely to have small classes than larger higher-education institutions, and serve, at some point in their career, a majority of American postsecondary students. Forty-eight percent of all science and engineering bachelor’s degree holders attended some community college, and women scientists and engineers are more likely to have attended a community college than their male counterparts, as are Hispanics and Native Americans, indicating that strengthening these schools might diversify the STEM workforce more quickly (NCSES 2012). In addition, nearly 40 percent of K-12 teachers began in community college, and half of minority K-12 educators graduate from minority-serving institutions (MSIs), giving all the more reason to strengthen these programs (Patton 2006).

Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) are those where more than a quarter of full-time students are Hispanic. Unlike Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HSIs are not necessarily Hispanic-serving by design, and a school’s status can change over time. Together with Tribal Colleges and Universities and institutions that serve large proportions of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, these schools span a wide range of geographic locations, size, selectivity, and degree offerings, including a large percentage of two-year institutions. It is disputed whether MSIs serve their students better than non-MSI institutions. Successful transfer to and degree completion at four-year schools, including HSIs, relies on a number of factors. Estela Mara Bensimon argues that compared with the K-12 system, there are very few practitioners and researchers of postsecondary student success, though examples like University of Arizona/Pima County Community College’s Futurebound, as self-reported by participants, effectively minimize transfer shock for women in STEM (Bensimon 2007; Reyes 2011). Less well-funded two-year schools are less likely to have the funds to hire such practitioners of student success, even though they have higher concentrations of “nontraditional” students and are therefore the school sites where they are most needed.

Unfortunately, community colleges simultaneously face larger challenges in offering cutting-edge teaching in STEM disciplines. The American Institutes for Research estimates that four billion dollars are spent each year on first-year community college students who drop out (Schneider and Yin 2011). A large source of discouragement is placement in a remedial math or writing course. Community college students are more likely to require remedial math coursework (almost 60 percent) than students at more competitive four-year schools (25 percent) (Dowd 2011). These courses absorb school classroom and instructor resources but are not usually credit-bearing, so even the best-case scenario, where the student completes a remedial course the first time, still leaves him or her a semester behind in STEM tracks, despite all of the school’s and student’s effort. Failing such a remedial course is correlated with a higher chance of never completing a degree (PCAST 2012). Interventions such as summer catch-up courses and even more informal emphasis and encouragement of incoming students to treat incoming placement exams as high-stakes tests worth preparing for can reduce investment of school and student in remedial work.

A Shift in Teaching Methods

Compared to other disciplines, research experiences in STEM fields can be expensive for schools to offer and appear competitive and inflexible to students and their schedules. Still, while traditional lecture hours continue to account for a large portion of a STEM degree, the more hands-on training an undergraduate student receives in his or her discipline, the better prepared the student will be. However, STEM lessons and activities can be hands-on without being thought-provoking, which is why many calls for reform argue for increasing student access to “authentic research experiences” (e.g., open-ended projects that are appropriate for students but still give them real scientific questions to solve).

Most schools have adopted the traditional laboratory coursework as a matter of scale, limited resources, and a desire for modularity. This coursework is as unlikely to attract and develop curious problem solvers to science or engineering research as color-by-numbers would attract and develop young artists to painting. It is crucial that students gain exposure to the physical setting and collaborative environment of technical workplaces, including informed attitudes toward safety and risk management that are difficult to internalize when presented in a lecture, discussion, or even a controlled “cookbook” style lab course.

On average, particularly in the physical sciences, computing, and engineering, academic institutions do not prepare minority and female students as well as they do White and Asian students (National Academy of Sciences 2010). This is an ugly truth for those scientists who hold a rational, meritocratic image of science in their head: the notion that a good scientist will succeed regardless of his or her background because this success does not rely on subjective interpersonal or business negotiations that can be tainted by human prejudice. A recent study of the National Institutes of Health grant award process confirms that the infrastructure of science is just as subject to implicit bias (Ginther et al. 2011); African American researchers were overrepresented in the rejected pool and less likely to reapply for funding even though the reject-and-reapply process is recognized by seasoned researchers as a viable strategy toward funding. These researchers often work at minority-serving institutions that lack resources (equipment, support staff, collaborator network, institutional knowledge, etc.) enjoyed by colleagues at elite institutions. This lack of capacity inhibits their ability to offer high-quality education.

Most STEM faculty use traditional teaching methods. Investing time in following educational research is a luxury that many do not have time for. Younger, untenured faculty who may be interested in evidence-based methods are not rewarded for devoting time to teaching, even if they demonstrate improved outcomes for students. One solution is for higher education administrations to increase visibility of evidence-based coursework already occurring as well as reward faculty for their enhanced service to students through funding or recognition that is considered in tenure decisions.

Nationally, only 63 percent of Latino students complete high school on time, and although this percentage is increasing, Latinos have the lowest educational attainment level of any group in the United States (WHIEEH 2011; Education Week 2012). Nevertheless, there has been tremendous growth in degree attainment for Latinos: a sixty-four percent increase in non-STEM degrees from 1998 to 2007, but only a fifty percent increase in STEM (Dowd et al. 2010), with lower numbers still in the “hard” (natural, physical, or computer) sciences, math, and engineering. This individual non-STEM/STEM gap is recapitulated in degrees awarded by Hispanic-serving institutions: 40 percent of all Latino bachelor’s degrees are awarded by HSIs, but these schools award only 20 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees; that is, HSIs do a relatively worse job at retaining their Latino students in STEM majors than other majors (Dowd et al. 2010). Some interventions and experiences that motivate students to complete STEM degrees may be out of reach for these schools due to lack of resources or expertise, so building STEM research and teaching capacity at schools may improve these numbers.

Interestingly, African American and Hispanic students, who are sorely underrepresented in all STEM fields other than the social sciences, have been found to express interest in these fields at comparable, if not higher rates as White and Asian students. Data from the University of California at Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute show virtual parity between underrepresented minorities and White and Asian students entering four-year schools in their intention to major in a STEM field since 2008. Alicia C. Dowd, Lindsey E. Malcom, and Estela Mara Bensimon (2009) marked Latino intent to major in STEM at 36 percent. In fact, this level of interest on the part of underrepresented students is consistent if not higher than that of their peers dating back to the mid-1980s (National Academy of Sciences 2010). Some studies have also found that African American and Hispanic students self-report greater engagement in their college experience than their peers, including greater personal, social, and academic gain, at both four-year and two-year schools (Greene et al. 2008). Institutionalizing “student success” courses for credit could reward these students for their efforts. Hands-on coursework, internships, and the like may help these students because the environment in which they invest energy acclimatizing to is closer to that of a real-world job environment that part-time students may actually be more comfortable in.

There is some evidence that educators who teach non-major courses are already more flexible in their teaching methods. Only two-thirds of arithmetic courses used alternatives to lectures, while anywhere from four-fifths to nine-tenths of calculus and differential equations courses did (Bragg 2011). Programs like CRAFTY (Curriculum Renewal Across the First Two Years) and Quantway and Statway are building curricula and tools to disseminate more nontraditional practices and more integrative, problems-based topics widely. Greater access to hands-on courses may help to recapture students with spatial reasoning strengths who in the past gravitated toward manufacturing or trade school but may no longer have access to such specialized technical courses (National Science Board 2010). These students would benefit from teachers who have experience in industry or otherwise know how to recognize potential in students who may not have excelled or delighted in STEM courses before.

Currently, many workers who are employed in STEM-capable jobs, particularly those in non-engineering majors, arrive in such positions after completing STEM degrees whose coursework is not particularly tailored to the tasks. While this well-rounded, liberal arts approach to career preparation is time-honored at the bachelor’s level, it may not be appropriate for students who want very specialized training for careers near where they are already living, working, and studying. Ideally, these specialized certificates or associate’s degrees should, when possible, allow workers to reenter institutions at a later date to pursue additional degrees. Allowing STEM degree holders to more incrementally accrue credentials on a need-to-know basis is ultimately good for the economy and for individuals, as it minimizes excess course demand that is not relevant. But more work must be done to build connections and validate that courses can serve dual purposes of career preparation and fundamental knowledge-building necessary for future schooling.

A Focus on Underrepresented Minorities

Combined, Blacks and Hispanics made up only 70 percent of K-12 teachers in 2008. Black and Hispanic students are less likely both to have teachers who look like them and who are experienced teachers with STEM degrees, which are scarcer in high-poverty schools with higher turnover (Ingersoll and May 2011). Credential programs that recruit diverse student populations to teaching degrees, especially those that allow concurrent pursuit of STEM degrees, can improve these statistics, as can legislation that requires “comparability” in access to high-quality teaching at the school, rather than district, level.

As discussed earlier, there is, overall, no shortage of STEM PhDs. However, depending on the field, women and minority groups are underrepresented to various degrees. It is worth considering factors that dissuade students with high interest and high preparedness from seeking advanced STEM degrees. Even if students engage with the material, they may take away (inaccurate) lessons from academia about what working in STEM is like. Oftentimes the argument is made that minority students seek professionals who “look” like them, but research (Carnevale et al. 2011), as well as other findings about the effectiveness of mentors, gives credence to the notion that they also need STEM role models who share their values. Exposure to professionals through internships, mentorships, or speakers’ series can provide students with a vision of their future and prevent them from selecting out of STEM environments when the academic culture is not inviting (Packard 2011).

The desire to stay out of debt motivates student populations differently. For example, among STEM bachelor’s degree holders, Hispanics were more severely deterred by their student loan debt than others (Dowd 2011). While it is unreasonable to suggest that graduate stipends should try to compete with salaried jobs in terms of dollars, schools can combat the risk aversion of underrepresented students by guaranteeing placement as either a teaching or research assistant during graduate school, offering at least the consistency of a “real job.” Highlighting the recent extension of income-based repayment of student loans more broadly to careers in public service, including STEM-capable public service, can also decrease the fear that investing in STEM higher education doesn’t pay.

Classroom, department, and institutional policies that require students to opt out of interventions can nudge greater participation in programs that improve student success. Requiring attendance, contacting students who fail first exams, and providing students with near-real-time data about their progress can prevent surprises or disappointment. At the institutional level, schools can reach out to students who are close to graduation but, for whatever reason, have dropped out. This is one of the easiest ways to make good on the investment—by the public with education funds and by the student with their time, money, and effort—already made.


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