Amy Slaton, associate professor of history at Drexel University, spoke to about a dozen faculty members in the Science Center yesterday about the underrepresentation of minorities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Slaton emphasized the need for skills-based education and for finding novel ways of promoting inclusion, arguing that previous efforts have seen insufficient progress in recent decades.
Certain groups are underrepresented in America's engineering schools, "and as we work our way up, the underrepresentation becomes more severe," Slaton said. She added that, though minorities are represented in STEM fields, their numbers do not accurately reflect the numbers of minorities in the country's population.
But simply locating and recruiting smart people from underrepresented groups is not enough to fix the underlying problem, she said, emphasizing the importance of outreach to people who do not yet have the necessary skills to work in the STEM fields.
The country began taking steps to foster inclusion as early as the 1970s, when professional societies were established to give minority students a sense of community. But there has been a remarkable lack of progress in 40 years, Slaton said. She pointed to a 2011 report called "Pathways to Prosperity" from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which argued that society places too much emphasis on attending a four-year college and that alternative pathways should be considered - particularly for students of color, who have significantly lower graduation rates than their white peers.
"To encounter this claim in 2011 strikes me that very little has changed in the past decades," Slaton said.
The professor also emphasized the importance of taking new steps to promote inclusion and provided examples of challenging the mold to increase inclusion.
In the 1980s, NASA implemented a program where grants were given to historically black colleges and universities. Instead of expecting results in the typical five years, NASA extended the grant period to seven years, effectively "decoupling the definition of rigor with the definition of pacing" and allowing historically black colleges and universities to join the world of competitive research. By encouraging society to question existing productivity standards, more minority students could be included in research, she said.
In an example from this past year, University of Colorado at Boulder student Amelia Dickerson worked to make STEM fields more accessible for handicapped students like herself. Though she was initially unable to participate in laboratory experiments because her chemistry professors did not provide accommodations for blind students, Dickerson approached a company that translated visual outputs to auditory outputs and secured the assistance she needed to participate. Slaton advocated taking similarly innovative approaches to make STEM fields more accessible.
Ultimately, people "have to ask what possibilities there are for greater justice and equity in the field," she said.