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Editorial: The minority STEM crisis

Last semester, The Herald published a series called “Missing Scientists” exploring the minority students at Brown involved in what is colloquially known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Both at Brown and across the country, students who describe themselves as underrepresented minorities — American Indian, Alaskan native, black, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander — are much less likely to receive degrees in the sciences, specifically the hard sciences, than the general student population. Last spring, for instance, students who self-identified as one of the aforementioned categories constituted 13.5 percent of the graduating class, but received only 5.6 percent of physical science degrees and 9 percent of engineering degrees. From 2009-13, according to the Office of Institutional Research, 4 percent of URM students graduated with degrees in physical sciences, compared to 12 percent of students who identified as non-URM.

It should be noted that non-STEM fields are, of course, worthy of study, and that students — both URM and non-URM — may legitimately decide that they prefer non-science coursework. In addition, graduation data is insufficient — any thorough analysis would consider attrition rates and how they vary within the University. The last study of Brown, noted in The Herald, was completed in 2007 and found a 64 percent overall STEM retention rate versus 56 percent for URM students — a differential that does not seem too stark until one notes that in physical sciences (chemistry and physics), the overall retention rate is 51 percent versus a staggering 31 percent for URM students. Without newer data, and without a serious commitment toward teasing out these issues, it is impossible to determine how many minority students are pushed out of the sciences, and what their reasons are for choosing other areas of study.

In one possible explanation of this trend, a poll conducted by The Herald last semester found that 45.3 and 61.2 percent of black and Hispanic students, respectively, did not feel prepared to concentrate in STEM fields, compared to only 30.2 percent of white students. However, student feelings may be exacerbated by a hostile classroom environment, a problem that is made particularly acute given the paucity of URM (particularly black) faculty members in STEM disciplines. These systemic issues may not be the University’s direct fault, but they certainly do not excuse the University from assisting students, particularly minority students, who feel insecure in the sciences.

There is more than enough evidence that minority STEM attrition is indicative of a systemic failure, but relatively few University resources have heretofore been devoted to mitigate it. If ever there were an issue that called out for a University-wide task force, this is it. Already, we have promising programs that are seeking out at-risk students, such as the New Scientist Program and Catalyst, the pre-orientation program aimed for minority prospective STEM concentrators, but these initiatives must be promoted and supported. We need to understand not just how many URM students move away from STEM concentrations, but all of the contributing factors that cause this to be the case.

The Undergraduate Council of Students recently passed a resolution supporting the goals of Inertia, a student organization that aims to encourage students of color pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but Inertia cannot be expected to shoulder this burden alone. It is essential that we make greater strides to recruit and support minority STEM faculty members and graduate students. Finally, we must consider returning to an expanded summer program prior to matriculation, where minority students seeking to concentrate in STEM — along with, perhaps, students of lower socioeconomic status who often face their own issues as well as related struggles — could receive intensive support. Brown has an opportunity to be a nationwide leader on this issue, and we should not miss this glaring unfairness within our midst.

 

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage ’15 and Rachel Occhiogrosso ’14, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil ’14 and Thomas Nath ’16. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.



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