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Diversity in the STEM Student Body
By John Freeman Posted:November 16, 2013 0 Comments
Diversity in STEM education is still a hot button issue that many educators, business leaders and policy makers are discussing. Despite efforts over the last 20 years to increase the number of women and minorities in the STEM fields, the majority of STEM college graduates continue to be white and male. The pharmaceutical company Bayer recently released a report entitled Bayer Facts of Science Education SV: A View from the Gatekeepers that polled 200 research universities about the role their views on women and minorities in relation to STEM education. Overall, Bayer found that while STEM educators were positive about the improvements that they had seen in this area, there was still a long way to go to provide true diversity in the STEM work force.

The Bayer study was conducted using online surveys sent to department heads at 413 college and university STEM departments. This included 200 of the nation's top research universities as well as universities with high rates of graduates that identified as ethnic minorities. The researchers sent 3,787 invitations and received a 9% response rate. To qualify for the survey, individuals had to be an undergraduate department head or chair in one of 34 predetermined STEM categories.

The findings from the study confirmed that there is a problem with retaining women and ethnic minorities in STEM programs. While 83% of those interviewed believed that STEM diversity was a necessary and beneficial part of the United States' continued STEM competitiveness and more than 90% believed that a diverse student body aided STEM education in the classroom, only one-third had an existing policy that promoted STEM diversity. Further, 70% expressed the feeling that the diversity efforts that they thought were needed to fix the equality problems inside their institutions required support from university officials rather than department heads. For real recruitment and retention, the entire college or university has to be a part of the process.

The study also illustrated that those interested in diverse STEM education should not lump every group together. Minorities and women have different obstacles to overcome. For minorities, those surveyed said that 21% of minorities were not academically prepared for collegiate STEM work. In addition, 16% of the institutions surveyed had trouble recruiting minorities and 15% had problems with minorities feeling isolated from their peers. On the other hand, women as a group had fewer difficulties according to results of this study. Of those who responded, 28% of institutions reported that women had similar for retention and graduation rates as their male peers. The problems expressed included lack of female interest in the field (18%) and family responsibilities interfering with studies (11%). These statistics show that while diversity remains a key concern in making sure that the STEM workforce adequately reflects the entirety of the future workforce, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to make sure that every group is included. Instead, background and unique characteristics will require distinct proactive responses from high schools, colleges and universities.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Bayer study is in the conclusion of its executive findings. While the surveyed college and universe chairs expressed the desire for increased diversity recruitment and retention efforts, 83% reported that they believe faculty has a role in counseling students away from the STEM fields if a student does not show potential in this area. Around 21% of minorities and women who have undergone this counseling have reported it as being inappropriate, though this number is probably much higher due to the embarrassment involved in reporting it. Further, we know from previous studies that over 40% of female and minority engineers currently working in the STEM fields were discouraged from pursuing their STEM goals, most often by college professors. This discouragement points to a significant fact in diversity recruitment and retention indicating that these policies cannot simply be something that a university and its staff pay lip service to. Either these colleges and universities believe that diversity is important and that they will take whatever steps they need to increase these efforts, or they believe that there are certain groups that are more prone to just not being able to handle it and should study something else.

No one should be left behind in today's STEM world. With STEM education efforts exploding across the country and children being exposed to technology and science from an increasingly early age, there is a place for nearly every student in today's university STEM departments. While there have been great signs of progress, there is still work that needs to be done before true STEM diversity becomes a reality in American college education.