How to Use STEM to Empower Today’s Minority Youth


Though historically a leader in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the United States has fallen behind other industrialized countries in producing students who want to pursue a career in STEM-related fields. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education reported that only 16 percent of high school students expressed an interest in a STEM career and had a demonstrated mathematical proficiency. Even though 28 percent of students expressed interest in working in a STEM-related field when they started high school, 57 percent of those students lost interest by the time they graduated.

Among minorities, the statistics are even starker. The 2015 STEM Index, sponsored partially by Raytheon, indicates a small growth in STEM-related education and employment between 2014 and 2015. However, gaps between whites and minorities remained the same or even widened. The data show that black, Hispanic, and Native American students earned fewer STEM-related college degrees, displayed lower test scores, and expressed less interest in STEM-related careers than their white counterparts.

The problem is not that the number of STEM degrees awarded among minorities is not rising. In fact, the number of STEM-related degrees earned by black students between 2000 and 2014 rose by 60 percent. However, the number of STEM degrees compared to the number of non-STEM degrees shrunk. The same proportionality issues are true for Hispanic students as well.

According to projections by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2010 and 2020 job growth in STEM fields is expected to grow by 18.7 percent compared to 14.3 percent for all other occupations except healthcare. Moreover, an increasing number of non-STEM careers, including the manufacturing sector, require workers with STEM-related skills. Therefore, increasing today’s minority youth’s interest in STEM will help empower them to pursue a wide range of careers in a number of growing fields.

The STEM curriculum was developed to do just that. Its approach is to teach the four STEM subjects in an applied, interdisciplinary manner. Rather than learning the four subjects as separate and discrete entities, students learn from a cohesive program that teaches them how to combine the individual disciplines and use them in real-world applications. Since 2009, the Obama administration has increasingly emphasized and funded STEM curricula throughout the country. By 2015, over $1 billion had been raised for STEM programs. Nevertheless, the National Science Foundation reports that fewer financial resources are available to schools that serve lower-income and minority students. They also employ fewer teachers who are specially trained in math and science.

One way to combat these deficiencies is to increase funding for afterschool-based STEM-related clubs and activities. Research shows that quality programs increase students’ likelihood of graduating and pursuing a STEM-related career. While legislators have petitioned for federal funding to assist with this goal, the private sector has also been working to make it happen.

The Games 4 Learning Institute (G4LI), based at New York University, works with Microsoft to teach STEM skills to minority youths through something many youths love: video games. Underneath the fun of video games are engines that simulate complex real-world systems. Teaching young learners how to program and develop games helps bolster their inquiry, analogical reasoning, and problem-solving skills.

Other private sector companies and institutions are following suit. Baxter, an Illinois-based global healthcare company, partnered with Northwestern University’s Office of STEM Education Partnerships to create the Biotechnology Center of Excellence at Lindblom Math & Science Academy, a Chicago public school with a predominantly minority and low-income student body. Between 2012 and 2014, the center trained 168 teachers from 115 schools on how to administer STEM education. These teachers went on to reach 20,000 students.

The State of Illinois also engaged in nine statewide public-private partnerships called STEM Learning Exchanges to partner students with private sector mentors who guide them through independent research. The connections are made through a website called the Mentor Matching Engine, described as a “STEM,” that allows students from rural areas to have the same access to mentorship as their urban counterparts.

Finally, Motorola Mobility, Siemens, and IBM are among a larger group of private companies that partnered with the MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation to create FUSE, an out-of-school initiative designed to engage minority students in robotics, electronics, mobile app development, and 3D design. The program encourages interest and learning by presenting learners with increasingly difficult challenges for them to solve.

This blog was originally posted on Troy Dixon’s philanthropy blog.


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