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Lawmakers Seek to Build, Diversify STEM Workforce

June 9, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
Zharia Akeem. (Photo: Alonso NicholsTufts University)

Zharia Akeem, 19-year-old student at Tufts University, said that after being accepted into its Bridge to Engineering Success program she saw a need to help and bridge the gap between engineering research and minority communities. 

“I am the only person and woman of color in my classes, and we all kind of understood that’s how it is and was going to be the rest of our classes,” Akeem said. 

Akeem said in her first course, in engineering, she was one of four women in a class of 35 men, and she quickly found that the course was far from introductory. 

“They expected you to have a grasp in computer science, and it was an introductory class, and I did not have computer science classes in Detroit. It wasn’t welcome for people to work and collaborate, and I wasn’t able to talk to classmates because it was very competitive,” Akeem said. 

A spokesman for the university said due to student privacy concerns, he was unable to “speak to any individual student’s schedule or classes,” and could not respond to Akeem’s description.

“However, we can say that the School of Engineering’s most recent incoming classes have had roughly equal numbers of men and women, the result of steady growth in the number of women students over the past several years,” he continued. “For example, the Class of 2023, admitted in 2019, had parity between men and women students.

“And the university, which strives to provide a diverse and inclusive learning and working environment, is working to increasing the racial diversity of its student body and has made significant progress in recent years on this priority, although it acknowledges that much work still needs to be done,” he said.

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, White and Asian students continue to make up the largest share of college students seeking to earn degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a discipline usually referred to as “STEM” research.

Relying on data from 2018, the most recent year available, Pew’s researchers found that Black students received only 75 of the STEM bachelor’s degrees handed out that year, while Hispanic and Latino students received only 12% of the degrees in that discipline.

The numbers were particularly telling when weighed against their respective shares of all bachelor’s degrees. For instance, Blacks received 10% of the degrees awarded in all disciplines in 2018, 3% more than were STEM grads. For Hispanics, the same 3% margin applied, with Hispanics accounting for 15% of degrees awarded across all disciplines.

Students from other groups, including Native American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and people who identify with two or more racial groups, are earning bachelor’s degrees in STEM in roughly the same proportion to their share of all degree recipients.

Black and Hispanic adults are also underrepresented among those earning advanced degrees in STEM, especially among those earning Ph.D. or other research doctorates. Representation of Black and Hispanic adults is lowest in math, physical sciences and engineering degree fields.

A bill currently being considered on Capitol Hill, H.R. 2225, seeks to address that disparity. 

Called the National Science Foundation for the Future Act, the bill authorized $11.5 billion for the National Science Foundation in Fiscal Year 2022, an increase of about 35% over the $8.49 billion the foundation received in 2021. 

The legislation would continue the increases to the agency over four years with an average annual rate of 6% growth, topping out at over $16 billion by FY25; that would set a target of doubling the agency’s current budget over the five years of the legislation.

In addition to the funding authorization levels, the bill establishes a new directorate within the Research & Related Activities account, which hosts NSF’s research portfolio. 

Called the “Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions”, it will, the bill says, “accelerate the translation of Foundation-supported fundamental research and…advance technologies, support use-inspired research, facilitate commercialization and use of federally funded research, and expand the pipeline of U.S. students and researchers in areas of societal and national importance.” 

The bill also has sections devoted to STEM Education and to broadening participation in those programs.

These provisions support research and development to improve the alignment of undergraduate STEM education and training with workforce needs, while also mandating outreach to historically Black and tribal colleges and universities, minority institutions, and higher education programs that serve veterans and rural communities.

It also authorizes 50% increases in funding over 5 years to increase training, mentoring and professional development of undergraduate STEM education, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers. 

A pilot program will support partnerships to expand research opportunities to students like Akeem, who attended minority serving institutions.

The bill’s sponsors are Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, Frank Lucas, R-Okla., Haley Stevens, D-Mich., and Michael Waltz, R-Fla.

“Before, I wasn’t able to see myself as a biomedical engineer because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in those fields, representation is very important,” said Akeem.

Akeem is the first person in her family to attend college, and first discovered her interest in STEM research when a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came to speak to her high school class about a six-week summer program.

“When I went back to Detroit, I had a sense of guilt that I was able to do [the program], and some of my classmates weren’t,” said Akeem. 

After completing her freshman year as an engineering major, Akeem was asked by her physics instructor, Vesal Dini, if she would be interested in working with him as a summer scholar as part of a program funded by the Tufts’ Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction.

The project, conceived by Vesal, would have Akeem examining undergraduate grader approaches to their work in commenting and scoring student problem sets in two reformed introductory physics courses. The ultimate purpose of the project is to better understand how to train graders and help them give constructive feedback that foregrounds students’ productive ideas and helps students forward from where they are. 

This work is part of a much larger endeavor to make STEM more inclusive by transforming education to better reflect how science is actually practiced, because the practice of science correspond to the practices of learning.

This demands that students openly discuss their thinking with one another and engage in a process of refining that thinking accordingly. Part of the essential work of the instructor, then, is to make students feel safe, cared for, and encouraged since this kind of work can be very challenging. 

Dini recognizes a pressing need for larger diversity of engagement in STEM research, if not for social justice reasons, but also because it’s good for research outcomes! Studies are increasingly showing that a greater diversity of backgrounds and opinions on a given topic ultimately makes for greater objectivity, which is a gold standard in science. 

“Many of the professors in my department are aware of the challenges that the department and physics as a whole face, to welcome and work side-by-side with many more people from underrepresented backgrounds. This will require a significant cultural shift that, among other things, will include the ways we relate to and consult with one another, empathize and seek to show kindness and understanding—even about matters of rigorous research!” said Dini.  

To help find others on campus that could relate to her experience, Akeem also joined an African American sorority called Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., in which Kamala Harris had also been a member, and met other Black women engineers.

“Some of the things that helped were seeing that one or two women of color were able to survive, and thrive in those classes, and they came from similar backgrounds as I did and similar cities, and if they can do it, then I can do it,” said Akeem. 

Akeem said she is a part of one the largest incoming classes of African American students on campus, and that while it makes her uncomfortable to still be one of the only people on campus who looks like her, she feels it’s important to be a pioneer for her community.

“When I look back at myself in high school, I didn’t have other African American women to talk to, and understand their process, and when I become successful in this field, I can give this back to my community and other members of my community to try to raise those numbers,” said Akeem. 

“We have a long way to go in transforming education and the STEM research space. From a STEM perspective, I think it really does start with strong, early childhood education programs, and then reforming K-16 science classes towards learning environments that privilege students’ engagement in scientific practices and virtues. Such engagement provides avenues to strengthening conceptual understanding. I think this is fundamental to inclusion and equity,” said Dini.

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