When media reports dive into the impending shortage of STEM workers, they often pose the question, “How do we get more kids to pick STEM majors, and stick with them?” Better qualified teachers, more hands-on learning, and earlier introduction are all tossed around as potential pieces to a solution.
But there’s another aspect to the pipeline of workers heading into STEM fields: Low-income kids, who make up almost one-half of US public school students, too often are shortchanged on STEM classes.
There’s also a startling gap between the quality and availability of STEM courses between schools with a large population of minority students and those without. Only 65 percent of high schools with large minority populations offer Algebra II, compared with 82 percent of high schools with small minority populations, according to the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Only three in 10 African American students who are likely to succeed in advanced-placement math—a gateway to engineering careers—take the course. This disparity stems from both a lack of both education access and personal confidence, according to Change the Equation.
There’s also a disparity between STEM education in rural and urban or suburban areas. The Carsey Institute found that suburban and urban schools offer, on average, three to four more advanced mathematics classes than rural schools do.
“Rather than trying to squeeze a few more STEM students from populations that can already choose STEM if they want to, perhaps policymakers should focus even more on giving currently underserved populations the ability to make a STEM choice in the first place,” wrote Andrew J. Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners.
Some groups and schools are working to close the gap. McKinley Technology Education Campus in Washington, D.C., offers specialized classes in biotechnology, engineering, information technology, and mass media technology with a hands-on, project-based curriculum. The high school is a Title I STEM magnet school, with approximately 6 of every 10 students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.
As Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, told PBS Newshour in a story on McKinley, it’s all about familiarity: Offer a STEM class and students can begin to imagine a future in science, engineering, or math.
Based here in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab expands access to STEM courses for low-income and rural areas with its satellite locations throughout West Virginia. To date, it has partnered with three universities to reach 47 schools in the region, one-half of which have majority low-income student bodies.
One of those satellite locations is the June Harless Center, which brings CREATE technology and training to rural teachers. This summer, the center also hosted three Arts & Bots camps in Mingo County where kids built moving, blinking robots with juice bottles and paper-towel rolls.
We wrote about Mingo Central Comprehensive High School last year, which is in the heart of a region that’s been hit hard by the recession and the decline of the coal industry. By partnering with the CREATE Lab, students in the area are exposed to cutting-edge learning materials like GigaPan cameras and Arts & Bots curriculum.
“It’s tough to show the kids, ‘Hey, you’re going to use this somewhere,’ when they’ve never seen that job,” Richard Duncan, Mingo County STEM coordinator, told me in January. “That’s why we’ve been pulling on the CREATE Lab and our other partners, because we want the kids to see what else is going on outside of this area.”
As we build up the pipeline of future STEM candidates, it will remain critical that we don’t inadvertently shut a door on any child’s future.