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How to Solve Tech's Diversity Problem? Start With Schools

The key to boosting diversity in STEM fields is educating students from all backgrounds from an early age, experts say. Elaine Thompson / AP, file

Tamara Battle had always been interested in math and science, and was good at it, too. So when she entered Borough of Manhattan Community College in 1992, she tested well enough to be placed into calculus-based physics. On the first day of class, she realized two things: she was the only black woman in the room, and she had no idea what the professor was talking about.

“It was like, ‘ok, everyone knows what a vector is, right?’” Battle recalled. “I looked around, way out of my league, and realized, ‘Wow, this is going to be a challenge.’”

It’s not that Battle didn’t have the smarts to keep up. It’s that she’d never even taken calculus. She’d also never met a scientist or science teacher who looked like her. Instead of encouraging her to pursue math and tech, Battle’s guidance counselor had informed her she probably wouldn’t graduate from her Brooklyn high school.

Even 20 years later, Battle’s situation isn’t unique. A new analysis of College Board data from Georgia Tech finds that among 30,000 high school students who took the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam in 2013, Hispanic and African-American students accounted for only 8 and 3 percent of test takers, respectively. Among 2013 AP Calculus test takers, only 5.5 percent were black and 13 percent were Hispanic, well below their share of the population. This lack of early engagement in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has a domino effect: In 2011, for example, underrepresented minorities earned 9,736, or 12.5 percent, of all engineering bachelor’s degrees, even though they’re nearly 30 percent of the population. Logically, those figures affect who will land some of the highest-paying, most readily available jobs of the future.

For Barbara Ericson, director of outreach at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing and the one who analyzed the data, AP exams are “the canaries in the coalmine,” the best way to track which high school students are engaged in STEM subjects. “The students taking those tests are the ones who are going off to college in these fields,” said Ericson. Female, black, Hispanic, and Native American students are vastly underrepresented in all of them.

Diversity in STEM fields is a national problem, but it varies by region: In states like Texas, California, New York, and Maryland, the statistics are not nearly as dismal as in states like Mississippi and New Mexico, where no African-American students took the AP Computer Science exams. In fact, in Mississippi, only one student took that exam, period. No students took it in Wyoming.

“Computer science in some states has just about disappeared, and that’s not good because it’s one of the fastest growing fields,” said Ericson, noting that Mississippi had 40 people take the test in 2001. Computer science “is a foundational skill for any STEM field. Nowadays, you couldn’t map the human genome without computer science skills.”

Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., a strong advocate in Congress for diversity in STEM fields, says it all comes down to funding elementary and high schools early on, from both the private sector and the National Science Foundation. And that funding, in turn, comes down to legislation—like the amendment Edwards added to the COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which prioritizes under-represented minorities and teachers in high-need schools for fellowship grants. “You need governors and state legislators that actually push for this, or else you’re going to have a problem,” she said.

Edwards also points to the STEM Opportunities Act of 2013, which is currently stalled in the House of Representatives. The law, among other things, would bring more resources to historically black colleges and minority-serving institutions in dire need of research funding. “[This funding] would really turn the tide,” Edwards said. “These places serve the fastest-growing part of our population.”

These university programs do exist on a smaller scale, and they seem to be working. In Mississippi, infamously ranked last in education nationally, there’s the Louis Stokes Mississippi Alliance for Minority Participation, a consortium of eight colleges across the state that concentrates on recruiting minority students to STEM disciplines. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program provides scholarships for around 300 promising minority students statewide who are referred by faculty or, in some cases, recruited in high school. The program also helps the students to attend conferences, pursue graduate education, find employment and score internships.

Dr. Andre Heath, LSMAMP’s site coordinator at Southern Mississippi University, said the program does a lot of catch-up. Many students find themselves inadequately prepared, like Tamara Battle did at BMCC years ago.

“The students that do come here need some kind of remediation,” said Heath.

There’s little funding in the state for the pipeline before college—so Heath and the LSMAMP students try to fill the gap by visiting middle schools and high schools.

Chris Bolden, 22, came to LSMAMP from Natchez, Miss., where he was raised by a single mom making just over minimum wage. “I pretty much figured I wouldn’t be able to afford college,” he said. But it seemed possible once he heard about the program at USM through an African-American student named LaShonda, who paid a visit to his high school class. He ended up getting a full scholarship studying microbiology and plans to go for his Ph.D. He and the other LSMAMP students make the rounds at schools around the Jackson and Hattiesburg area, encouraging kids to do the same.

“One time, when I asked a boy what he wanted to do when he grew up, he told me, ‘I want to work at Burger King,’” said another LSMAMP student, Taylor Nunnery, of his visit to a middle school. “That kinda got to me. He didn’t know anything else because his mom worked there.” It’s important for Nunnery to be in front of these young students, he said, physically showing them what else is out there.

“These kids need to see people like Chris and Taylor, people that are successful but who aren’t athletes or entertainers,” said Heath.

For Battle, seeing a black scientist for the first time made all the difference. She ended up transferring from BMCC to the historically black Medgar Evers College, and participating in the school’s own version of the Louis Stokes Alliance. At a conference sponsored by the program, she met an African-American engineer from NASA. “I told him, ‘This is crazy. Who am I, a little black girl from Brooklyn, to think that I can do research at NASA?’ And he responded, ‘I’m a black man who grew up in a farm in Ohio. Why not?’” A tiny moment like that, Battle said, “redefined my thinking.”

Battle ended up majoring in environmental science and became one of the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education at Howard University, which both funded her own research and gave her an opportunity to work with elementary-, middle-, and high school kids. Nowadays, she helps manage that same program as a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, her opportunity to “give back.” The K-12 level, she says, is “by far” the most important.

“All I knew back then was that I loved math,” Battle said. “I didn’t even know the [STEM] world existed, and nobody told me. We need to make sure little African-American girls know that this world exists.”

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