STEM in America: Data, Approaches, and Questions (Part III)

Part III: Strategies

In Part II, we continued to look at data about students in higher education and what they choose to study; we saw that, although the overall student population for all of higher education became more similar from 2002 to 2012 to the overall national population of 18-24 year-olds, student populations in engineering programs are not following the same trend.

In this section, we’ll look at two programs trying to address and remedy representational disparities in STEM fields. Though one targets K-12 students and the other post-baccalaureates, both identify similar sources for, and solutions to, the diversity problem in STEM education.

Lego women scientists
Women scientists, but no minorities. Photo from

Why These Disparities?

The first possible explanation to come to mind for disparities in STEM representation is socioeconomic background, which correlates with racial and ethnic distinctions and is a powerful factor in many scholastic and achievement disparities. But we saw in Part II that disparities in racial and ethnic representation in higher education on the whole have shrunk; if access to higher education is becoming more equitable across racial and ethnic groups, and yet interest in STEM is not, there must be other factors at work. We also saw in Parts I and II that, among all racial and ethnic groups, women are much less likely than men to pursue STEM fields, particularly in engineering. We can assume that, for any given socioeconomic group, the proportion of men to women is approximately equal, so it does not make sense to use socioeconomic background to explain the great disparity between men and women in STEM fields. Background is simply not enough. There are other reasons for which women and some racial and ethnic groups, even while their presence in higher education grows, are not pursuing STEM degrees in the same proportions.

One possible such reason is that these populations lack role models in STEM fields, and do not see themselves in STEM careers because they have not seen relatable adults in those careers, either in their lives or in media or even toys. Even with more public scrutiny of media and toys and demand for depictions of women as capable members of intellectual careers, obstacles and controversies persist. The popular television series The Big Bang Theory­ now includes female scientists in its cast of characters, but during its first season, the main characters were limited to four male PhD students in science fields and one sexy female waitress. Toys that are meant to encourage girls to take an interest in engineering have left many frustrated: in August 2014, Lego released a Research Institute playset with three women scientists, but the set sold out within days and Lego has given no indication that they might produce more; even as more Lego sets include female minifigures in STEM roles, some consumers remain frustrated by the ubiquitous lipstick and, in some cases, curvy waists drawn onto the figures’ blocky Lego torsos. At the same time, new toys continue to showcase female dolls in contexts like fashion shows, beach houses, and beauty parlors.

Similar complaints can be made on behalf of minorities: where are the toys and media characters depicting black and Latino scientists and engineers?

For white male students, not only do media likenesses abound in STEM roles, but the data we’ve examined so far imply that they are also more likely to have family and other personal role models in STEM careers. Disparities as large as those in engineering programs and other STEM domains can become self-perpetuating, and providing opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities may not be enough to result in significant change.

where are the toys and media characters depicting black and Latino scientists and engineers? Click To Tweet


One project, the California Tinkering Afterschool Network (CTAN), brainchild of the San Francisco Exploratorium, aims to create interest and comfort with STEM subjects among students who aren’t likely to have STEM role models. With help from Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, CTAN provides space and time for kids and teens to engage in projects with variable levels of guidance. Participants are encouraged to explore ideas iteratively, trying multiple approaches and accepting failure as part of a larger process of creation and, ultimately, accomplishment. A great deal of attention is paid to the program’s facilitators, who attend workshops put together by the Exploratorium to bring them up to speed with current research in project-based learning, collaborative teaching styles, and other ideas to help them create a welcoming, constructive space for participants. Details about the project can be found at CTAN’s website. In their paper “Tinkering, Learning and Equity in the After-School Setting” members of CTAN’s team posit the tinkering approach as one that improves equity (among racial and ethnic groups) because it rejects the “test-centric” curricula that have been demonstrated to disproportionately disadvantage “working class students and students of color”(4): “While tinkering activities have particular parameters and goals (making a musical instrument or a working pinball machine), they are intentionally designed to support multiple pathways and to imply a range of solutions” (3).

This description of tinkering may remind you of something else: gameplay. Game design also presents players with parameters and goals, attainable and explorable through a variety of pathways. And this is no coincidence: “our approach to tinkering treats play as a vital context for thinking and learning” (3). CTAN is research-focused but relatively new; I look forward to seeing the progress of program’s participants as they advance through the educational system. Will their rates of interest in engineering and STEM be higher than those of their predecessors?

Beyond college, the Bridge Program looks to address the same disparities in graduate science programs. Their strategy involves changing the selection criteria for PhD programs – focusing less on GRE scores and more on evidence of tenacity and focus – as well as providing students with increased attention from faculty. Mind/Shift profiles the program here. The Bridge Program describes itself as having “something truly unique – a family atmosphere – with caring mentors combined with high-level research.” According to Mind/Shift, the Bridge Program’s retention rate (92%) far exceeds the national average for the sciences (around 50%), and they place 100% of their PhDs in jobs. The Bridge Program’s two-fold strategy mirrors CTAN’s: a shift away from the test-focused learning that further disadvantages STEM’s underrepresented populations, and an emphasis on the social environment with supportive mentors playing an important role in a student’s success. Is this a way to supply students with the STEM they lack?

The Bridge Program’s data gives us something to analyze, though we might not be able to say just what it is about the program that works so well. But its success is inspiring more schools to try to emulate it, which means we should have more data to look at in the future.

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