Diversity in STEM


Yours Humanly

January 30, 2020

Diversity in STEM

What is STEM?
The term “STEM” was coined in the early 2000s and has been a buzzword for over a decade. STEM refers to education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In education, a STEM-centered approach focuses on using these subject areas to guide student inquiry and discussions, as well as develop 21st century skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration.

In the workforce, STEM careers include computer and mathematical occupations, physical and life scientists, engineers, architects, and healthcare technicians. However, in the past few years, there has been a movement building to change the acronym from STEM to STEAM– adding arts to the mix. Some feel that while all the changes to emphasize STEM in our education system has been a great move forward, a large piece is missing: the process of creativity and innovation. By adding arts elements and design principles, STEM education is enhanced and our youth are truly prepared for the future with 21st century skills, able to create and innovate.

Where’s the Diversity?
According to the Pew Research Center, the bulk of STEM workers in the U.S. are white (69%), followed by Asians (13%), African-Americans (9%) and Hispanics (7%). Compared with their shares in the overall workforce, whites and Asians are overrepresented while African-Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in the STEM workforce as a whole.

In his article “Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters,” Kenneth Gibbs, Jr., PhD, discusses how diversity is critical to excellence in science. He emphasizes that teams, rather than individuals, conduct most scientific research, and notes that “people from different backgrounds do, on average, tend to approach work and problem solving differently. These differences can bring new perspectives needed to promote innovation.” Therefore, a loss of diversity represents a loss of talent.

The demographics of the United States are rapidly changing– nearly half of post-millennials are racial or ethnic minorities. “Thus,” Gibbs says, “the continued underrepresentation of minorities and women in the scientific enterprise represents a challenge to the United States’ ability to, in the long-term, cultivate an adequate, domestic scientific workforce. It is hard to grow a workforce–let alone get the ‘best’ workforce–when there’s broad underrepresentation of up to 75 percent of the potential talent pool.”

Barriers to Diversity in STEM Fields
Despite the fact that the Hispanic population of Silicon Valley is close to 30%, representation in local technology firms is only 3%. We know diversity is important. So why do we continue to see a lack of underrepresented groups in STEM fields?

One reason is a lack of exposure in younger grades. Low-performing schools and schools with high numbers of English language learners often place a higher emphasis on remedial English and math skills, greatly reducing or even eliminating access to other subjects such as technology, science, and social studies.

Second grade teacher Malia Tayabas-Kim is in her sixth year of teaching in Oakland and shares her perspective. “In theory everyone knows that STEM is something that needs to be included, but when you think about schools that are under-resourced and usually serving students who have an array of needs (English language development, counseling, coming in far below grade level due to things outside of school), the focus is meeting Common Core Standards, assessments, and closing the achievement gap,” she says. “Therefore, things like STEM, arts, and music are the ones that are seen as ‘extras’ that can be cut or removed, even though studies show those things help with student success of the whole child.”

Tayabas-Kim also notes that many programs cost money, and schools serving those communities don’t have the money for them, or the people to run the programs. “Some schools barely have books, and they don’t have the funding or a PTA to help raise money.”

Another possible reason that there continues to be a lack of underrepresented groups in STEM fields is a lack of these groups seeing people like themselves represented in science, technology, and engineering fields.

“Look at magazines, the news, the media– you don’t often see a person of color as a doctor or scientist,” Tayabas-Kim reflects. “For students who learn more hands-on, STEM would be amazing for them.”

For now, the focus remains on closing the achievement gaps– focusing on reading, English language arts, math fundamentals, and assessments– but often at the expense of our most vulnerable students who would benefit greatly from a holistic education incorporating science, engineering, technology, and the arts.

While there has been some growth toward diversifying STEM demographics, there is still a long way to go.

How You Can Help
Among numerous other projects, Yours Humanly funds and builds upon STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Math) programs to encourage student innovation and critical thinking when learning about real-world problems.

Here are some ways you can help support more STEAM programs in schools and educational equity for all students:

  • Share this article with your network and spread the word!
  • Volunteer your time and/or skills to support our cause
  • Make a donation to help children in need
  • Attend our upcoming annual Gift of Schooling Gala on February 22, 2020

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” ― Barack Obama

Ruanna Owens

Ruanna is a freelance writer and content creator with a background in urban education. She is a passionate advocate of educational equity and believes that through education, travel, and the arts there are unlimited opportunities for self-growth and human connection. She enjoys contributing her skills to mission-driven organizations that are working to make positive change in the world.