It’s back to school time, and this year as in some years past, there has been an increased emphasis to include more women and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and math, otherwise known as the STEM fields.
But if we truly want to get more women and underrepresented minorities into STEM fields, we need to do more. And not just about funding. We have to do more to build the Texas STEM pipeline.
President Barack Obama recently announced new private-sector commitments of $240 million for STEM education programs and initiatives to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. These steps at the national level are admirable, but to make a significant and lasting difference here in Texas, we must tackle diversity and bias directly. How?
We must address the fact that we lose these underrepresented children early in the education pipeline. We must hold ourselves accountable for not participating enough in civic efforts that influence political agendas. We must consider a holistic approach to filling and sustaining the STEM pipeline, particularly with respect to getting underrepresented minorities and girls excited about STEM careers.
According to the College Board, less than 15 percent of Texas high schools offered the AP Computer Science course in 2013-2014. Of those who took the AP computer science exam, 24 percent were women, 21 percent Latino/Hispanic, and 4 percent black/African American.
This represents a large disparity when we look at demographic data for K-12 students in Texas. More than half the student population is Latino, and almost half of the student population is composed of women.
If we wish to make significant strides to increase diversity in STEM, we have to fully commit to building the Texas STEM pipeline and address obstacles including lack of certified STEM teachers and low student/parent demand. We need to reform education so that some of the STEM fields, such as computer science, are a right and not a privilege.
Yes, incentivizing more teachers to get certified to teach computer science will “move the needle,” but we still need to think broadly and strategically about outreach and engagement with policymakers. We must work collaboratively to create forward-thinking solutions if we wish to remain globally and economically competitive.
For example, the State Board of Education should consider allowing courses such as the AP Computer Science Principles to satisfy the required curriculum for Texas high schools. Additionally, school boards should vote to expand computer science education across all grades, as exemplified by the city of San Francisco.
Filling the STEM pipeline also requires a multidisciplinary approach. Acknowledging that students have various interests and strengths, often influenced by their environment, is the first step toward engaging students in STEM. This multidisciplinary approach must be complemented by hands-on engagement, which is critical to sparking students’ interest in STEM early on. Code.org and programs that use Scratch, robotics and game development, as exemplified in the Maker culture, are having tremendous success reaching young and diverse students. We need more of these in Texas.
We also have to do a better job of engaging families. This means going far beyond marketing and promoting programs. It means getting authorization, for example, from the district superintendent or a religious congregation to distribute program fliers, translating literature into different languages, and programming activities that engage parents in STEM education.
Sustaining the STEM pipeline requires helping students make real-world connections, both inside and outside of the classroom. Additionally, to ensure that students are retained in STEM, students need to be empowered both personally and academically to be taught how to create and foster existing relationships in support of their goals and how to advocate for themselves. This will ensure students’ success and facilitate leadership development, so that students coming through the pipeline later contribute to training the next generation of scientists, engineers and innovators.
The shortage of underrepresented minorities and women as STEM professionals not only limits their participation in many well-paid, high-growth professions; it also deprives the nation of the full benefit of their talents and perspectives. It’s time Texas takes the lead on developing the STEM pipeline.
Kelly Gaither is the director of visualization at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Rosalia Gomez is the education and outreach manager at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) August 24, 2015