STEM for All: Working Together to Improve Access for Women and Minorities

President Barack Obama’s Educate to Innovate program prioritizes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). With a sharp focus on 21st-century skill sets, the program aims to expand STEM access to all students.

Schools need to redouble their efforts on STEM disciplines for women and minority students.Though many business leaders agree that workplace diversity is crucial to innovation, recent data shows that  STEM industries have a long way to go on the diversity front. Despite the changing demographics of America, participation in STEM industries by women and people of color has remained stubbornly low over the past 20 years. This poses a two-fold challenge: worsening economic inequality and missing out on the innovation and new ideas a more diverse workforce can provide.

Closing the STEM education gap

STEM education availability remains a challenge. In 2013, the College Board provided grants to help districts expand their AP STEM access. Funded by Google and DonorsChoose, this initiative specifically set out to increase minority student access and increase the diversity of STEM industries. A recent study by Chalkbeat Colorado showed that while the state has developed equitable STEM offerings for minority populations, survey responses indicate a mere two out of seven children in the responding districts had access to STEM education.

Ensuring access to STEM programs for all students remains a significant policy challenge. Importantly, STEM programs are expensive and require significant school and community investment. Some schools, particularly those in socioeconomically struggling areas, lack the financial resources for quality STEM programs.

As a nation, we can and should do better. The White House’s strategic plan to expand STEM access speaks to a variety of federal programs that support this goal. In his 2015 White House Science Fair speech, Obama highlighted $240 million in private sector STEM commitments. While these significant policy issues drive the conversation on STEM diversity, school administrations and educators can take specific steps to boost inclusivity in science, technology and math.

Tactics for boosting diversity in STEM

In its paper “Engaging Diverse Learners Through Provision of STEM Education Opportunities,” education researchers at SEDL recommend that school districts:

  • Prioritize K-5 science as a core competency.
  • Increase STEM mastery among teachers.
  • Encourage and support instructional leaders as they learn strategies for increasing student support in STEM programs.
  • Work with local businesses to emphasize project-based learning for students, which allows for application and mastery in STEM learning — increasing student confidence and knowledge transfer.

Working with local businesses gives schools an opportunity to connect students with industry-invested mentors. If these mentors are women or minority representatives, their presence can help minority students see themselves represented in the industry, which increases their chances for long-term participation in STEM careers.

Expanding everyone’s access to STEM is a laudable goal in the 21st century. Indeed, it is particularly important that we seek opportunities to increase the diversity and inclusivity of STEM programs, both for our minority populations and for the long-term success of science, technology, engineering and math careers. Diversity and inclusivity in the STEM industry are long overdue.

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