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Minority groups underrepresented in STEM fields

This gap in representation has both economic and social implications, education experts say

While ethnic and racial groups that have historically comprised a minority of the U.S. population are growing in size and influence, they remain underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics both nationally and at Brown.

Administrators and higher education experts said this gap in representation poses an alarming problem not only to universities but also to the nation as a whole.

According to 2010 data from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Census Bureau, underrepresented minorities earned 18.6 percent of total undergraduate degrees from 4-year colleges, but only 16.4 percent of the degrees in science fields and less than 13 percent of degrees in physical sciences and engineering.

The University’s statistics reflect this trend. Groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences include students who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, black, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. At Brown, these students received 13.5 percent of undergraduate degrees in spring of 2013 but only 5.6 percent of the degrees in the physical sciences and 9 percent of the degrees in engineering, according to data provided by the Office of Institutional Research.

“STEM has the toughest time keeping pace with changing demographics. If you look at the business world, the sports world, the arts and politics — they seem to be doing a good job of keeping pace, but we haven’t seen that kind of change,” said Andrew Campbell, associate professor of medical science and program director of Brown’s Initiative to Maximize Student Development.


Reinforcing inequity

The disproportional representation of certain minorities in science disciplines grows increasingly problematic as greater portions of the country become “majority minority,” said Charles Lu, director of academic advancement and innovation at the University of Texas at Austin.

“You have a big change in demographics, yet our people of color are not getting into STEM fields, or they’re getting pushed out. And that poses a big problem, not only for the education system but also down the road,” Lu said.

Racial minorities may be cognizant of particular societal, health and political issues that the majority of STEM students would not normally consider, said Mitchell Chang, a professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California Los Angeles.

“You see those inequities in society reinforced in part because ... the members of those communities ... aren’t entering these fields that can either help them or prevent them from being exploited,” he said.

Science relies on individuals with diverse perspectives working together, Lu said. Many students in STEM disciplines aspire to careers in medicine, which require empathy for a wide array of patients.

If the underrepresentation of minority groups in STEM fields perpetuates, “We’re not going to have scientists and medical practitioners who are responsive to those demographics,” Lu said.

The disparity in STEM fields also has economic implications, Lu said. “We’re going to have to keep outsourcing more and more jobs, so our economy is going to suffer.”

Students tended to agree that the representation gap is a serious problem that necessitates University action.

“Historically people from my background don’t go into science a lot,” said Jesus Leyva ’16, a student from Mexico concentrating in applied math and biology. We should “encourage students to keep going with the field they were in,” he said.


Leaving the field

Attrition from STEM disciplines during students’ undergraduate years accounts for some of the disparities in STEM fields.

Nationally, underrepresented minorities who initially pursue STEM degrees are about 40 percent less likely to complete them than are their white and Asian-American counterparts, Chang said.

The University also sees higher attrition rates in underrepresented minority student populations in STEM fields. A 2007 report released by the Undergraduate Science Education Committee at Brown found the University’s undergraduate retention rate for underrepresented students in STEM concentrations to be 56 percent, while the overall retention rate in STEM fields was 64 percent.

This gap grew even more pronounced in the physical sciences, which include chemistry and physics. While the overall retention rate was found to be 51 percent, only 31 percent of students from underrepresented groups who began to pursue degrees in these fields completed them.

While it used to be the case that fewer underrepresented minority students entered college intending to pursue STEM degrees,  “that gap has closed in the last 20 years,” Chang said. “What we’re seeing now is almost the same proportion of underrepresented minorities interested in pursuing those degrees as entering college freshmen as whites and Asians,” Chang said.

Liza Cariaga-Lo, associate provost for academic development and diversity, said not all attrition should necessarily be viewed negatively.

“There is nothing wrong with attrition if the attrition has to do with where people decide to pursue their life goals, but it is an issue if we’re not providing the support and resources they need if they do want to stay in the sciences,” Cariaga-Lo said.


What’s needed at Brown 

Closing the gap in the ethnic and racial composition of students in STEM disciplines is an arduous but manageable and necessary task, education experts agreed.

Increasing the number of role models for minority students, expanding opportunities for research experience and ensuring adequate high school preparation would help to alleviate the current disparities in STEM disciplines, professors, administrators and students noted.

Though programs exist to help underrepresented minority students succeed in the sciences, students, faculty members and administrators expressed that the problem of underrepresentation still deserves more attention.

“Simply put, there aren’t enough underrepresented students in STEM fields,” said Abi Kulshreshtha ’15, an Indian-American student concentrating in physics and economics.

“The ethos at Brown is that we are a community of scholars who engage one another in ... these ways that bring different perspectives to the table,” Cariaga-Lo said. STEM fields “can benefit more fully from the talents of these underrepresented students who we may not really be tapping for work in the sciences.”

Tomorrow’s story will explore the experience of underrepresented minority students in STEM classes, featuring first-hand accounts of the challenges they have faced at Brown.


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