What You Need to Know About the STEM Race Gap

Minority students who dream about an engineering career face a host of barriers from implicit bias in early-childhood education to subconscious and overt racism in the workplace. There’s plenty of finger-pointing about where the racial gap starts, with some STEM organizations trying to find a magic solution to seal the gap and help students of color.

A systemic issue with multiple causes and effects can’t be solved simply by blaming teachers or neighborhoods or employers. There needs to be change across the entire STEM journey, not just at a few bad stops along the way.

Here are a few places minority students are being left behind in STEM and how some organizations are making changes. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it should highlight what African American and Hispanic students are up against when they consider STEM careers.

Students in a STEM classroom

The Elementary School Classroom

While some STEM experts are quick to point to teachers when addressing the lack of diversity in their field, many teachers are in fact highly dedicated to reducing the race gap and actively striving to create equal opportunities in their classrooms.

“Teachers alone cannot tackle systemic issues of racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism in STEM,” Cindy Hoisington at Edutopia writes. “But addressing our own biases and enriching our repertoires of STEM teaching behaviors is a manageable goal that has the potential to dramatically benefit not only our individual students but the STEM community as a whole.”

Unfortunately, even well-meaning teachers can actually contribute to the STEM/STEAM race gap. Project Implicit, a nonprofit based out of Harvard, creates tests to help people better understand subconscious biases and stereotypes. The tests cover everything from mental health to issues related to race and gender.

The goal is to help people across America — including teachers understand their actions, and how those actions, guided by implicit associations about race, could be adversely affecting students’ futures without realizing it.

Implicit Bias Starts in Preschool

A great example of seemingly-fair teachers exhibiting implicit bias is the behavior of preschool teachers watching classrooms.

Dr. Walter Gilliam of the Yale Child Study Center conducted a study where preschool teachers were asked to watch videos of students to look for potentially challenging behavior. There was no actual challenging behavior in the videos, but researchers used eye scanning to see where teachers looked and what they identified as potential problems. Not only were African American children in the videos watched more, but black boys in particular were flagged for bad behavior more often.

NPR reports that African American children make up approximately 19 percent of all preschoolers but account for about half of all preschoolers who get suspended.  

These teachers weren’t told that they would be participating in an implicit bias study. They thought the issues were purely behavioral, but it actually highlighted how racial and gender biases start before students can even read and write.

Bias in Elementary School Affects High School Performance

Hidden bias might not seem like it affects your students daily, but it has major effects for their futures.

One study by the IZA institute of Labor Economics found that assigning African American students from low-income families to at least one black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade reduced dropout probability in high school by 29 percent. Black male students in particular saw dropout rates reduced by 39 percent. Both genders are also more likely to want to attend four-year colleges.

Even well-intentioned white teachers can hold students back by not promoting them to advanced classes or grading their work in accordance with their own biases.

The Middle School Classroom

If you’re looking to see exactly how subjective opinions and subconscious racism hold minority students back, look no further than middle and high school math classes.

In most school systems, middle school is where students are sorted into different learning tracks for math and other subjects. Those placed in non-advanced classes are less likely to complete higher courses in high school, making college admission that much more challenging. Historically, placement was determined by teacher recommendations and other subjective factors, but some schools are looking to fight implicit bias and change that.  

The Brookings Institute recently profiled the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina, which noticed students in advanced high school math classes were disproportionately white. The pattern started right at the point when students were sorted as to those that would take Algebra in eighth grade.

When the school system changed from a subjective to objective placement policy, basing placement on test scores alone, educators noticed a decrease in racial and gender gaps in the advanced math classrooms. Within just a few years of its implementation, they had successfully closed part of the gap and cut out some implicit bias.

Reducing racial bias can’t be done overnight, but each system, school, and classroom can and should take steps toward doing so.

“If we are purposeful and intentional in our actions, we can begin to narrow the achievement gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classrooms,” Dr. Jeff C. Marshall, associate professor at Clemson University, writes at Advanc-ED. “Excellence in the classroom demands that students from all backgrounds are able to thrive and grow.”

Eductors are leading discussions about racism and using their classrooms as mirrors to the real world.

The High School Classroom

High school is often the last chance for students to catch up with peers or be exposed to STEM and STEAM concepts. As we saw earlier in the math placement studies, African American students are already held back by implicit bias by the time they reach ninth grade, and the school they attend in high school can make or break their learning experience.

Cullen White, the managing director of computer science at Teach for America, shares some eye-opening statistics about the state of computer science education:

  • Only one in four schools across the nation offer computer science courses.
  • 98 percent of all undergraduate computer science majors have exposure to the field before college.  

“Disparity of early computer science experiences cuts promising students off from the many benefits the field has to offer,” White writes.

Those undergraduate students with exposure to computer science before college likely come from predominantly white, upper-class backgrounds and attended the top 25 percent of schools that offer computer science classes. How are minority students supposed to learn about computer science and other STEAM subjects if their schools don’t offer them? 

With that said, there are dozens of organizations outside of public school systems that provide computer science education and mentoring to minority students. Change The Play in Connecticut has activities and educational workshops for at-risk youth, and the David E. Glover Education and Technology Center provides access to technology for students in Oakland. Both do fantastic work in their communities, but they can’t be expected to change the entire nation.

Educators Are Taking Steps on a National Level

While the current outlook for computer science undergraduates might seem bleak, there is hope for the future. Nick Anderson at the Washington Post looks at how creators of the Advanced Placement exam identified diversity problems and reshaped the program to appeal to more students.

In 2007, only 734 African American students took the computer science AP exam out of 20,000 total participants. The organization has worked to promote the course specifically to underrepresented students and changed what students learned to better align with the college experience. The AP has also worked to increase the number of courses taught and teachers available to teach it.

These are small steps to increase minority participation and representation, and while helpful, they alone won’t fix the entire STEM gap.

A family celebrates at graduation

The College Campus

By the time minority students leave high school, many have been put off by STEM fields or feel too far behind to compete.

Natalie Escobar for US News reports that minority students tend to go into social work and other low-paying careers outside of STEM. A study by Georgetown found that 20 percent of degree holders in human services are African American, earning a median annual salary of $40,000. Meanwhile, only seven percent of STEM-related degree holders in jobs that pay an average of $84,000 per year are black.

Stuart Miller at The Hechinger Report says schools have to do more than simply offer more scholarships to African American students to attract them to STEM and STEAM fields. Campus culture can have a massive impact on students’ well-being and what they decide to study.

He profiled students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. While the school has taken steps to increase its minority population (up to 11 percent in 2015 from eight percent in 2010), those students often don’t feel like they’re part of the student body, and are more likely to drop out or change their STEM-majors.

It’s not that the students are behind or can’t do the work; it’s that they don’t feel like they belong in STEM, leading them to choose other fields, as highlighted by the Georgetown study.          

Local Organizations Help Students Get a Foot in the Door

More communities are taking steps to help college students feel welcome in STEM programs and show that there is hope for their futures. For example, the Boston Foundation recently launched its Hack.Diversity program, which aims to increase partnerships with “typically-overlooked urban colleges, universities, and two-year institutions.”

Boston is known for its universities, but that doesn’t mean top talent is only found at MIT or the hallowed-halls of Harvard. By connecting these students to the budding tech and innovation sector, they can get a foot in the door and start their STEM/STEAM careers.  

A man in a suit and tie

The Workplace

Minority students who fight against the odds and graduate with a STEM degree and enter a science or technology field aren’t likely to catch a break in the workplace.

Sarah Emerson, who reports on tech culture from her homebase of San Francisco, explains exactly how deeply-entrenched discrimination and racial bias are in the STEM economy. More than 60 percent of African Americans in STEM have experienced racially-motivated discrimination, compared to 42 percent of Asians or Hispanics.

This racism doesn’t always manifest itself in blatant comments or slurs. Modern racism comes in the form of undervaluing what black tech professionals can do, paying them less, failing to suggest them for advancement tracks, or handing important projects to non-black colleagues.

Racism Isn’t Just a Tech Problem

Technology is just one part of the STEM acronym, but racial bias affects all of the science, math and engineering fields. The National Science Foundation regularly shares statistics on race, gender, and disability representation in science and engineering. Their interactive charts and data are fantastic resources to explore the STEM gap.

They recently reported that 67 percent of scientists and engineers are white, and 49 percent of all scientists and engineers are white men. African American men and women only make up three and two percent of all scientists respectively, while Hispanic men and women only make up four and two percent.

This data highlights the severe need for racial diversity in future STEM and STEAM jobs. The racial gap isn’t a childhood problem, it’s something minority employees experience every day.

Back to the Classroom

All of these efforts come full circle as young students look for STEAM mentors and heroes to guide their career choices. If minority students keep leaving the field, then the next generation will face the same problems.

“One of the things we must look into is ensuring that there are role models that are able to speak to various communities,” Blair Blackwell, manager of education and corporate programs at Chevron, told Engineering.com. “It is very important for students to be able to see someone who looks like them, that came from their background, in order to show them that that pathway truly is possible.”

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