This week, I had the opportunity to attend a Washington Post Live event entitled "Diversity in STEM". Panelists like Sandra Cauffman, deputy director for astrophysics at NASA and Valerie Sheares Ashby, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and other leading experts talked about the role of education, public policy and the private sector in building a diverse STEM workforce. They all had something to say about how we can change the representation in STEM, and this is a summary of what I heard.
At the corporate or job level, something as simple as making sure job notices for STEM jobs are posted at all colleges (including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) on platforms that are universal. Groups have different perspectives on the use of platforms such as LinkedIn, so it's use can't be assumed to reach a universal audience. Once a diverse workforce is in place, providing a support system is key or they often leave the company.
Colleges need to have systems of support for their students, particularly in the STEM fields. Alumni and faculty can play a huge part in helping to mentor TEAM students, showing them there is a path to success. Panelist Dr. Turner from the Brookings Institute, said, "People can't be what they can't see" and she advocated that we need to turn STEM into STEAM by including the arts. Most STEAM jobs that will require creativity and critical thinking, two qualities often associated with the study in the arts. It was very interesting to hear that HBCUs produce 25% of the African American STEM graduates and 50% of women graduates with terminal STEM degrees. UMBC's president, Dr. Sheares Ashby stated, "if you are not diverse, you can't be excellent" because we learn the most from the people we have the least in common.
(Not to take away from the seriousness of this topic, but the back of my head is in the bottom left hand corner of this picture:) )
Every school in this country should be offering upper level math, science, engineering and computer science courses, but those are often missing in urban and rural schools. Make hands-on experiences available to all students. Companies should offer paid internships in STEAM fields, making sure that transportation is included. Abbott was highlighted as a company that is getting high school students into their labs and making sure they are mentored while doing real science. Outside of classroom, bring STEAM activities into after school and summer programs for K-12 students to reach a wider audience. Teachers in the elementary grades need to be exposing the students to STEAM by doing hands-on projects.
All of these things are important and need to work together to change the diversity in the STEAM workforce. Change starts with us. One of my proudest accomplishments as a teacher was increasing the percentage of females in physics from 19% when I started to 60% and the making my physics classroom match the school in terms of diversity. I had to change the culture around physics. It was, and too often is, seen as this extremely hard class that only the best and brightest could survive. Once I showed my students that they have been doing physics their entire lives and it was a class where they were supported and encouraged, the culture of physics was changed in our school. But it needs to start earlier, and at home. Instead of stating that math and science are hard, what if we changed the narrative? What if we made science and math vocabulary part of our conversations with children. Keeping animals requires an understanding of biology, so why not call it out? Baking and cleaning are chemistry, building anything from forts to Legos is engineering and any type of motion is physics. SO many students who sign up for a chemistry of physics class automatically assume it will be hard. Using the vocabulary from an early age could remove that mental barrier so many students have about math and science.
The reality is that the future workforce will require STEAM skills. So let's make it the best damn workforce in the world! #EinsteinFellows22