A Time of Urgency

A report provides both the rationale and a plan of action for colleges to recruit and retain more black, Latino and Native American students in STEM fields, writes Freeman A. Hrabowski III.

November 8, 2010

Statistics about blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans preparing for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) paint a troubling picture. Members of these groups make up 29 percent of the national population, and they are among the fastest-growing groups in the country. Yet they represent only 9 percent of the nation’s college-educated science and engineering workforce.

As I go around the country, colleagues in higher education often tell me they know that few students from underrepresented minority groups are succeeding in these fields. They want to know what they can do to move beyond talking about these issues to substantive actions that will lead to results. The National Academies recently issued a report that focused on this problem. It lays out a number of recommendations in areas ranging from undergraduate retention to teacher preparation. It delineates specific roles for different types of two- and four-year institutions, including minority-serving institutions, predominantly white universities, and community colleges, and it addresses challenges at every level, pre-K-20, as well as the roles of federal and state governments and local institutions.

The report proposes that undergraduate retention and graduation must be the top priority. In particular, it recommends policies and programs that will increase the number of underrepresented minorities succeeding in STEM fields by providing strong financial, social, and academic support. The financial assistance should be provided through higher education institutions, along with federal programs that encourage academic, social, and professional development. Students in STEM fields need financial support so they can focus on their education and on research instead of working outside jobs to make ends meet.

Many might be surprised that underrepresented minorities aspire to earn STEM degrees at roughly the same rate as other groups. However, only about 20 percent of underrepresented minority students complete undergraduate STEM programs within five years. And while white and Asian American students are more successful, their completion rates are also troubling, with only 33 and 42 percent of those students, respectively, finishing STEM degrees in five years. The country is struggling to remain globally competitive in science and technology. Retaining and graduating undergraduates of all races in STEM fields is clearly an American issue.

The report makes a clear call for leadership in higher education: "For each higher education institution that must now take action, the academic leadership — regents, trustees, presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs — must articulate underrepresented minority participation as a key commitment both in the institutional mission and in everyday affairs in order to set a tone that raises awareness and effort…. Faculty buy-in is essential."

An initial step in attacking this problem is simply engaging key groups in honest dialogue about the goal of increasing student success. Presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs can show their interest in the subject by facilitating discussions with students, faculty, and staff. It helps when leaders can ask good questions: Why is it that such small percentages of all these different groups currently complete STEM degrees? Are colleagues concerned about the low percentages, or is it just accepted that this is the way it is? While one concern is students’ having to work to pay for their education, other questions involve the quality of the teaching and learning on campuses.

Holding focus groups can help leaders gain a clearer understanding of the problems. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the late 1980s, many minority students were discouraged by limited prospects for success in STEM fields. For example, even the highest-achieving black students tended to earn Cs or below in upper-level science classes.

To understand the problem, we conducted focus groups with students, faculty, and staff, resulting in many changes, both short- and long-term. We created a scholarship program that emphasizes high expectations, active faculty engagement, peer support and undergraduate research experience. We started (1) encouraging students to study in groups; (2) strengthening tutorial centers; (3) encouraging faculty members to give students feedback earlier in the semester so students could make adjustments; (4) emphasizing the need to communicate with incoming students about the demands they would face in STEM fields; and (5) creating a framework to support and encourage them in their crucial first year.

More recently, faculty redesigned the curriculum in our chemistry department and opened the Chemistry Discovery Center, which emphasizes active learning and collaboration. The rate of students scoring Cs or better in introductory chemistry classes quickly jumped from about 70 percent to almost 85 percent. As a result of this success, other STEM departments are redesigning their first-year courses and making use of a new facility known as CASTLE (College Active Science Teaching and Learning Environment), which draws on best practices involving technology, collaboration, and active learning.

Grades and statistics highlight specific parts of the problem, but they don’t tell the whole story. We need to understand how our students are doing emotionally, and how they view their experience in and out of the classroom. For those who are graduating, but barely making it, we have to ask if that student will have the confidence to succeed in a STEM career or to pursue a graduate degree in a STEM discipline. And we need to understand the different issues facing subgroups, e.g., women in computer science, African American males in engineering, or Hispanic women in chemistry. Simply looking at overall averages will not give us enough information to effect needed changes.

In addition to examining what is happening at our own universities, it is vital to look at best practices elsewhere. Campuses that succeed tend to look at effective programs and to collaborate. We can all learn from each other about success stories and challenges. Programs that have been increasing the number of underrepresented minorities majoring in STEM fields and excelling in post-graduate studies take a multifaceted approach that combines financial, emotional, and professional support. It is important to build a community of students who work together in labs, and who also form study groups to master coursework.

The report recognizes the important role of faculty in attracting students to these disciplines, and the necessity that they support these goals. It takes researchers to produce researchers, so faculty members must open up their labs and provide opportunities for undergraduates to become involved. Research has shown that these experiences often spark the interest of students who go on to careers in STEM fields. Tenured faculty, in particular, must also be encouraged to take an interest in the success of their students. Campuses can reinforce this commitment to success and diversity by recognizing faculty who reach out to students and engage them in research, and who also mentor other faculty as they engage students.

The challenge of bringing more underrepresented minorities into STEM fields is a project vital to our nation’s economy and security. Leaders should bring to this effort the same rigor that we bring to any scientific project, continually assessing outcomes and sharing what works. As we strengthen teaching and learning for underrepresented groups and improve experiences in first-year science classes, we will find that the practices identified or developed will be beneficial to all students.

Changing our expectations about who excels in science will not be easy. The only way we can succeed is if the leaders of our campuses can see the challenge as a national imperative. At present, the U.S. ranks 20th among 24 countries in the number of 24-year-olds who have earned a first degree in science or engineering. The report argues that a vital aspect of increasing the number of Americans with STEM bachelor’s degrees from 6 to 10 percent will be to quadruple the number of underrepresented minorities who complete these degrees, simply because these groups represent a growing proportion of the national population. Far more students aspire to become scientists and engineers than most people realize. The sad fact is that more than half leave in the first year. Many are fairly well-prepared, but they become discouraged in their introductory STEM courses. We need to focus our attention on why they leave and on strengthening teaching at this level.

The study has concluded, and now the work begins. A good first step is to make changes on our campuses so that the first-year students who arrive interested in science and engineering are supported in achieving their goals. By focusing on these students, we can increase the number of scientists and engineers, and enhance our nation’s competitiveness.


Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is chair of the National Academies Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline.

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