How Can Ethnic and Gender Diversity be Increased in STEM Higher Education?

When it comes to STEM higher education and the careers surrounding it, diversity seems to be lost. While STEM is continually being emphasized as a type of education that people of all ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds need, there currently is a large gap in who’s interested.

For one, the industry is dominated by men. Fifty percent of American women leave STEM-related careers in offices because of a hostile work environment, a 2014 Harvard study noted, and 44 percent of women think that in order to reach success, they must act like men. STEM fields also tends to be populated by white men. More than 70 percent of engineers and scientists in the U.S. are white, and only 5 percent of them are black. The lack of diversity has also affected those with disabilities. STEM students in the U.K. who are disabled are 57 percent less likely to continue post-graduate STEM studies compared to students who aren’t disabled, the Campaign for Science and Engineering noted.

In order to close the gap, STEM education must welcome students of any gender, ethnicity and ability.

“By 2023, only 45 percent of the U.S. population will be white.”

Why is diversity important?
Schools and educational systems are no longer dominated by Caucasians. By 2023, only 45 percent of the U.S. population will be white. This decline has carried over into classrooms. According to the National Center for Education, PK-12 classrooms nationwide are 52 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic and 12.6 percent black. As classrooms continue to diversify, so does the education within them. Embracing diversity in STEM classrooms and collegiate programs helps erase the stereotypes associated with STEM-related fields and encourages a collaborative environment where people of all backgrounds can share their ideas and work together.

How can diversity be increased?
Some programs have already made progress in embracing diversity in higher education STEM classrooms. For example, Louisiana State University has established a mentoring program that has already supported several black chemists in their journey to acquire doctorate degrees. Unlike other highly competitive STEM programs, LSU is much more inclusive. LSU’s initiative encourages students to enroll in any STEM course and feel comfortable in any classroom. The program admits freshmen and sophomores who have high school GPAs between 2.5 and 3.25. This way, even if students didn’t receive a great education back home, they’re qualified to get a stellar higher education.

The National Science Foundation has also made continual efforts to expand its program and raise funding to embrace diversity through a concept called broadening participation. According to the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, in 2011, the foundation spent approximately $754.05 million to increase broadening participation. In 2012, it went even further, spending $911.9 million on this concept. Both years, the funding went toward programs that encouraged women to become involved in STEM, and it started STEM programs specifically for minorities and people with disabilities.

Despite these great efforts, more progress still needs to be made. Communities need to come together to encourage diversity in STEM fields. That includes parents, professors, leaders in science and engineering communities, university heads, and even award founders. Together, these groups can help increase diversity in every environment, including higher education.

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