Our STEM workforce is no bastion of balance when it comes to race or gender. We’re reminded of this each time a major tech company is pressured to release its employee demographic data. But the inequity doesn’t start with the hiring committee. Instead, as a new study reaffirms, workforce issues reflect childhood disparities.
The National Center for Education Statistics has followed a group of 20,000 students since they entered their freshman year of high school in 2009. The latest update to the study, released in June, looks at the graduating students’ transcripts. The data reveal the differences in academic credits earned in STEM subjects—and interest in pursuing further studies in the fields—among genders and races.
Despite their wide gap in the workforce, male and female students earn about the same number of STEM credits in high school, with girls tending toward math and science and boys toward computer science and engineering. However, when asked about their goals beyond high school, more than twice as many male students wanted to major in a STEM subject.
The study also looks at the average academic credits earned by each racial group by the time the students graduate from high school. Asian students earn an average of 20.3 credits, white students earn 18.7, Latino students earn 17.6, and black students earn 17.4. The number of STEM credits earned follows a similar pattern: Asian students earn 8.5, white students earn 7.8, black students earn 7.4, and Latino students earn 7.3.
While the transcript study illuminates clear differences—and in some cases similarities—in STEM education, it leaves many questions unanswered. The researchers followed students at 944 high schools, and the results are representative of schools nationally. But they do not dive into the course offerings at each school. Given that male and female students take equal numbers of STEM courses despite later career disparities, it is easy to wonder whether the wider racial gaps at the high school level are partially a result of unequal opportunities at schools with different demographics. U.S. Department of Education data show there is indeed racial disparity in access to math and science course offerings. Other factors, like the availability of mentors, confidence, and encouragement or lack thereof, likely play a role in widening the gap.
Studies like the one by NCES do not uncover the root causes of the disparities they highlight. But they do speak to the need for change. Programs in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are trying to make STEM education accessible and appealing to those students least likely to get exposure otherwise.
Take Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. The afterschool program in Woodland Hills provides an applied, age-appropriate science curriculum (think Hair & Cosmetic Chemistry or Thoughts & Bots) to mostly low-income black female students. The material is designed to align with rigorous standards and to inspire confidence and peer-to-peer mentorship. The Neighborhood Learning Alliance also has a program, Tech Warrior, designed to equip black and low-income youth with tech and maker skills and tools. Both programs are responding to the dearth of enrichment opportunities for low-income students.
We know by now that STEM education does not begin and end with the school bell. Both classroom and informal opportunities for exploration in science and technology are important for kids’ development. In Pittsburgh, educators in and out of school are working to close the gap. During the school year, Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, a Pittsburgh Public School 6-12 campus focused on STEM, gives preferred admission to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Likewise, the STEAM camps at Assemble waive the summer camp fees for kids who live in the Garfield neighborhood, where the organization is located.
And each summer, a cohort of high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds get hands-on experience (and a stipend) working in a science research lab at Duquesne University. For many, it paints a fresh picture of what life after school could look like.
“We have them interview one of their professors to see what their career path was like,” chemistry professor Jennifer Aitken, who heads the program, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They may find out that not everyone had parents who went to college or knew what they wanted to do.”
Most teens, in fact, don’t know for certain what they want to do after high school graduation. That is why it’s important that all students have the opportunity to explore STEM subjects—and why, when early gaps exist, there are efforts to ensure they are not foreshadowing the future of the field.