SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.
By 2022, the U.S. is projected to have a deficit of at least one million college-trained workers in science- and technology-related fields. We need more college students to earn degrees in these fields and fill jobs in growing high-tech industries. Yet the potential talents of women and minorities are not fully tapped at present—not by a long shot. Let’s not waste our country’s singular feature: a citizenry that contains diversity unmatched by any other nation. Instead, let’s use our human capital as fuel to make our innovation enterprise stronger.
President Obama has championed initiatives aimed at drawing more students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The goals include training 100,000 more STEM teachers, promoting mentoring within the workforce, and exploring broadly the creative avenues through which all sectors of the country’s increasingly diverse and capable population can be encouraged and inspired to engage in STEM studies and careers.
In support of these initiatives, a team based at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is working to ensure that any effort to expand the STEM talent pool reaches across alldemographics, including girls, women and people of color. We plan to combine targeted research programs, collaborations with the private sector—including academia and industry—and events to elevate the visibility of these important issues. The work is built on three core objectives, each grounded in and guided by evidence.
First, we must promote interactive learning. The point of entry to STEM fields for college students is often the dreaded large “Introduction to [insert subject]” course. Most of these courses, surveys show, are taught exclusively through lectures, despite the abundant literature showing this to be a woefully ineffective teaching style. That needs to change. A wide array of options is available to effect active learning in the classroom, even in large lecture halls, and the benefits are measurable. A recent meta-analysis of more than 250 studies showed that students in classes taught exclusively in lecture format were 50 percent more likely to fail than students attending classes that included active learning strategies. Moreover, research has shown that women and groups underrepresented in STEM respond favorably to active learning strategies, apparently due to a greater sense of community generated in an active classroom setting. Enabling more opportunities for active learning in classrooms around the country, from K-12 through college, is a key goal.
Second, we must more often and more accurately portray STEM in popular imagery. In the media, STEM professionals are most often depicted as white males with stereotypical antisocial qualities. Television and other media ought to reflect an image of STEM that is truer to reality—one in which there are exciting, impactful roles for smart, interesting and, indeed, normal female and male professionals who identify as black, Hispanic, American Indian, white or otherwise. Prime-time television has historically been effective at influencing changes in behavior, including dramatic positive impacts on drug abuse, teen pregnancy and automobile safety. STEM inclusion should follow suit, and we hope to begin by catalyzing a national dialogue about the image of STEM, one that illustrates the diversity of careers and people in these disciplines.
Third, we must all work to recognize and correct for bias. Extensive data show that explicit and implicit biases in attitudes and institutional structures deter women and people of color from pursuing STEM careers. While explicit bias is becoming less detectable, implicit bias—largely unconscious beliefs that influence behavior—remains firmly entrenched. And it is an equal-opportunity menace. In studies, men and women, liberals and conservatives, and people of diverse races and ethnicities have all been shown to hold many of the same implicit biases against women and minorities when it comes to STEM. Research on the character and influence of implicit bias is ongoing, especially focused on learning more about effective, evidence-based strategies to intervene. We want to raise national awareness about bias, explore options for reducing it and recognize best practices in both classrooms and the workplace.
Today President Obama is hosting the fifth White House Science Fair, inviting extraordinary students to celebrate their scientific achievements, inventions and discoveries at the White House, just as champion athletes are so often invited to do. The theme of year’s fair, “Diversity and Inclusion in STEM,” could not be more timely or appropriate.
Let’s cast the widest possible net when it comes to recruiting America’s next-generation STEM workforce. Along with government, the STEM and education communities and businesses all have critical roles to play in getting the job done, from enhancing the way we train future STEM workers to providing a wider range of opportunities for real-world experience to diverse populations of students. Together we can develop and propagate the academic tools, insights, best practices, role models and experiences that will enable all students to discover their talents and consider careers in STEM.
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.