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STEM education is important for our future.

By now, everyone associated with higher education, government or industry knows or should know that African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians and some other minority groups are grossly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and far too few are even in the pipeline.

In 2006, four Democratic U.S. senators asked the National Academy of Sciences to do a formal study of the trend, and what the nation can do to shift the balance. The next year, Congress mandated such a study in the America Competitive Incentive Act (America COMPETES).

The study was done by a National Academies committee chaired by Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, resulting in a report last year, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads.

"Underrepresented minority groups comprised 28.5 percent of our national population in 2006, yet just 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering occupations (academic and nonacademic), suggesting the proportion of underrepresented minorities in S&E would need to triple to match their share of the overall population" the report says.

Meanwhile, the nation remains overly dependent on noncitizens to fill jobs in the science and engineering workforce, the report says. Underrepresented minority groups, as the most rapidly growing segment of the population, could help meet the increasing demand for American expertise.

DIVERSE: Issues In Higher Education asked Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County since May 1992, for an update on progress toward addressing the underrepresentation of minorities in STEM:

Q: What is being done now that the report is written to make sure it doesn't remain just a report on the shelf?

A: I have had the privilege of working with a variety of agencies that are looking at ways to increase the numbers of students who are succeeding in science. In several cases, those agencies have had their own studies that have built on what we have done. As a result of that, varying amounts of money are being committed to these initiatives. The best news is the heads of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Security Agency and others have taken a personal interest in these issues.

Q: Two of the people in Congress who initially signed the letter asking for such a study, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Sen. Hillary Clinton, of course, are no longer there. (The others were Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Patty Murray, D-Wash.) Who is leading the charge on Capitol Hill?

A: We have a number of federal officials that are asking the solid questions about these issues, whether it is about health disparities or about the under-representation in the intelligence community and security. So more and more, not only agencies, but also companies are getting involved in this work. For example, Northrop Grumman has given my campus a major grant to help diversify the cadre of cyber-security experts. We are seeing increasing activity focused on understanding what can be done to increase the numbers. I can think of large numbers of examples of additional funds and work being focused on underrepresentation. What we need to do is to see that there is a systematic study of the results.

Q: Is part of what the report is saying that if we don't graduate more people of color and different ethnicities, etc., now underrepresented in the STEM fields, we are not going to have enough scientists, period?

A: Exactly. To remain competitive globally, in the global marketplace, we need more Americans of all races, men and women, excelling in science and engineering and considering careers in those disciplines. For two reasons: one, there are jobs in selected areas that are going unfilled, for example, in computing; and two, we know that people with preparation in science and engineering will start companies.

Q: If you had to pick one initiative to start with, what would it be?

A: It would be to give universities support and incentives to strengthen undergraduate education. Even the students who have done well in high school, Black and White and Asian, tend not to graduate with degrees in science and engineering. We still have in this country a weed-out mentality in first-year science and engineering [courses]. They are seen more as barriers than as helping students to enter the field. On my campus, we are redesigning first-year science courses. Flipping the engineering course or the chemistry discovery center, where we don't give students the theories, they have to discover the theories. There is the need to have the National Science Foundation and other agencies focused on encouraging universities to rethink the first year of science and engineering to ensure that more students get a strong foundation. The other piece would be to encourage more community building on the campuses. Students need a group to affiliate with. We have not encouraged students to learn to work together and give each other academic and emotional support. Group work, collaboration, building community, faculty involvement with the students and redesigning courses are practices that we know work. We need much more of that in our institutions. We have students who are graduating from high school, who are at least fairly well-prepared, wanting to major in science and engineering, but who are discouraged within the first one or two semesters and change their major.

Q: I have read that you "get goose-bumps" when you do math, but what sparked your interest in math? How did you become so passionate about it?

A: I was my mother's guinea pig. She had been an English teacher and went back [to school] to learn the new math because teachers were scared to do that. She realized that success in math was tied to language and thinking skills and that she could use her knowledge in teaching reading to teach students how to solve word problems. So I started doing word problems at an early age. My father, who had been a teacher, left to work at a steel mill as a laborer because he could make more money. He was helping men in the steel mill get their GEDs so that they could do a little better, and he was working with them on math problems. He would get them ready for my mother's class, because at night she taught for the GED. I was really blessed to have parents who understood that education transforms lives, and they could see that there was power with the mathematics. We Americans tend to think math is for a few people and that most people can't do it. It's not that they can't do it. It's that they didn't have a teacher who knew how to be effective with them. When I ask the question, "How many people love to do math?", most people look at me either with a look of pain or laugh like, "Are you crazy?" Everybody knows you are supposed to know how to read, but we tend to think, "Math is really not for me." I always say if you give me a child who can read, I can teach him to solve math word problems.

Q: Among other things, the report talks about setting high expectations. Why is that important?

A: Because if we begin by thinking most students won't make it, they won't make it. It is only when we set high expectations for ourselves as faculty and as students that we understand that this is a partnership and that we have to work together to figure out what it takes for most students to succeed.

Q: How is this science and math underrepresentation an American problem, one for all of us, rather than just for those people who don't get through college? Given the talk after the election about "gifts" and "stuff" for special groups, we tend to be seeing some selfishness where we don't see things as being for the American collective good. Why is it important to have homegrown talent in these areas?

A: We have several challenges. First, whether we are talking about health care and health disparities or about intelligence and security issues, all the way over to the environment, those are problems to be solved heavily using STEM expertise. A disproportionately large number of people in our science and engineering workforce are from other countries. Large numbers of people in the national infrastructure came to this country to go to college or to go to graduate school. Years ago, my students in mathematics and statistics who came from India got here and stayed, but my students from India today are as likely to go back to India when they graduate, and they can work for an American company in India. Many more opportunities exist for students who are not Americans to go back to their countries, find employment and be paid well. Similarly, since 9/11 we have to be increasingly concerned about [the need to have] American-born citizens in certain types of jobs. It's global competitiveness in general, but it's about our very future, in terms of our safety, life and death situations and the environment. Other countries are moving rapidly to increase their STEM workforce and the number of well-educated people. The only way we can continue to be one of the leading countries in the world is to make sure our population is as well-educated as possible. Given the increasing proportion of the American population coming from these underrepresented groups, it's clear that we have to educate these children of all races.
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Title Annotation:Diverse bookshelf; science, technology, engineering and math
Author:Dodson, Angela P.
Publication:Diverse Issues in Higher Education
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:Jan 31, 2013
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