With shifts in demographics, research technology innovations, changes in the nature of work and increased employer demand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) expertise, graduate STEM education in the U.S. is ripe for strategic change. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently released a report that proposes a graduate STEM education system that better equips students of all backgrounds to meet the requirements of all types of occupations. The report outlines the characteristics of an ideal education system, core competencies for students, and recommended changes to make the system more student-centric and adaptive to current workforce needs.
Unlike natural ecosystems, institutions are built. And the decisions that are made in our institutions create the culture in which we work and study. In particular, choices that offset bias will encourage participation and improve performance – not only for women and underrepresented minorities, but for everyone. For example, increased workforce diversity leads to increased innovation. Despite this, nearly two-thirds of the professionals working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the US are white or asian males, a number which does not reflect either the population at large or those with science degrees.
“You will never meet a dean or chancellor who isn’t committed to diversity and inclusion”, says Rickey Hall, Vice President for Minority Affairs and Diversity at the University of Washington (UW). “The rhetoric is there, because it is the right thing to say, but it doesn’t reflect in behavior and in resources.”
The Wisconsin HOPE Lab at UW-Madison, which made headlines with research showing many college students struggle to find enough to eat and a place to live, has closed with the expiration of its funding.
Other UW-Madison researchers are engaged in research focusing on marginalized students, however. And HOPE Lab founder Sara Goldrick-Rab is launching a new research center at Temple University in Philadelphia that is an evolution of the Wisconsin lab.
“CCWT wants to give a voice to marginalized students who often serve as research subjects, but do not actively participate in the college-to-work debate. For instance, a current study is looking at how, or how not, Latinx college students benefit from student services and resources at their schools,” said Janet Kelly, WCER director of communications.
The Government Accountability Office (GOA) reported that of the 13 federal agencies surveyed that administer science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs, there were 163 STEM programs funded in fiscal year 2016 that were designed to increase the number of historically underrepresented students studying or improve the quality of education in STEM.
Many research institutions have made efforts to increase diversity among their administrations, faculty and staff members and student bodies. But research shows there is work to be done — and that the pay-off is immense. A 2017 study of 40 US public universities, for example, found that black, Hispanic and female science-faculty members continue to be under-represented relative to the US population (D. Li and C. Koedel Educ. Res. 46, 343–354; 2017).
Besides honing their strategies to draw more women and people of ethnic-minority groups, some organizations are also expanding opportunities for people from economically disadvantaged areas and those with physical disabilities, as well as trying to better represent people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.