American Universities Hinder Diversity Among STEM Students

A survey finds that traditional instructional methods—plus a lack of educational preparation and few role models—discourage women, Blacks, Latinos and American Indians from graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

STEM studentAre traditional academic approaches hindering organizations from bolstering diversity? According to new research, universities aren’t doing enough to diversify the next generation of talent from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) departments. In fact, 37 percent of STEM department chairs gave their institution a grade of “C” or below when it came to successfully recruiting and retaining women, Black, Latino and American Indian students.

The data is represented in the Bayer Corporation’s Bayer Facts of Science Education XV survey, which polled 413 STEM department chairs at the top 200 U.S.-based research universities, as well as colleges known for successfully graduating Black, Latino and American Indian STEM students.

Discouraging Courses

Nearly half (46 percent) of STEM department chairs believe that traditional academic approaches—namely the “weeding out” of students via demanding introductory courses—are harmful to women, Black, Latino and American Indian students. More than half (59 percent) reported that this discouragement occurs “frequently” or “occasionally.” Eighty-three percent said that faculty members do counsel some students away from STEM degrees, and 58 percent noted it as a common practice.­

Education, Role Models & Stereotypes

STEM department chairs rate the most significant barriers for students from traditionally underrepresented groups as a lack of educational preparation (32 percent) and a lack of role models (17 percent). Women students are challenged by a lack of role models (13 percent) and stereotypes (13 percent). For more on how stereotypes threaten students from succeeding at higher-education institutions, read social psychologist Dr. Claude Steele’s comments at a DiversityInc event.

Educational preparation is less of an issue for women STEM students (12 percent). The majority of department chairs (82 percent) perceive that women students enter college with a quality education, compared with majority students (74 percent) and Black, Latino and American Indian students (34 percent). Chairs also believe that women are 93 percent “as likely” or “more likely” to graduate compared with majority students. Only 61 percent anticipate the same for Black, Latino and American Indian students.

Initiating Change

According to Greg Babe, president and CEO of Bayer Corporation, the most important finding of the study was respondents’ lack of willingness to alter current teaching practices. While 84 percent of STEM department chairs recognized that recruiting and retaining women, Black, Latino and American Indian students is a prominent challenge and 46 percent perceive “weeding out” as harmful to students, more than half (57 percent) felt no need to change. And of those citing a need for change, the majority (71 percent) calls for an increase in academic support and tutoring.

“No institution should be immune to making changes where change is needed,” says Babe, who notes that “college STEM departments are important gatekeepers to STEM careers—indeed one of the most important links in the chain.”

Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first Black woman astronaut, medical doctor, chemical engineer and Bayer’s Making Science Make Sense spokesperson, says that it’s important to note that STEM dropout rates for all undergraduate students are at 40 to 60 percent. For more on how organizations can help improve dropout rates and bolster future talent pipelines, read “Rutgers Future Scholars Enhances Talent Pipelines With Corporate-Student Outreach.”

“This survey is about the perception about how the department chairs rate themselves, and there’s a reality behind that as well,” Jemison says. “The vast majority consider that women come to college very ready to succeed at STEM and graduate at much larger percentages. But when [students from traditionally underrepresented groups] and [majority students] do come prepared, they still graduate in lower numbers.”

Jemison cites industry research that found that 40 percent of women, Blacks, Latinos and American Indians who graduated with STEM degrees report that they were actively discouraged. “We are still losing other folks,” she says, noting how “weeding out” results in a loss of interest and self-confidence among STEM undergraduates.

To improve diversity in STEM departments, Jemison says that institutions need to provide expectation, exposure and experience. “Let students know that they should be there and that they are wanted,” she advises.

Read about the DiversityInc Foundation’s mission to fund scholarships for students who are disadvantaged financially.


Referenced Articles: 

How to Get More Blacks and Latinos in Accounting

The STEM Pipeline for Women

Rutgers Students Excel in Sciences With ODASIS

The Stereotype Threat: Dr. Claude Steele Mesmerizes Audience

AT&T & Rutgers on Solving the Dropout Crisis

 Rutgers Future Scholars Enhances Talent Pipelines With Corporate-Student Outreach

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  • As someone who has worked along side a STEM dept (literally next door) and had many lunches and discussions with workers, I’d say those findings are close to representative in my old institution, however, I’d debate if they are necessarily bad… especially since there are no comparison stats to non-STEM students. First, point, regarding the weeding out classes: every institution has different reasons for intro classes with high academic standards. My institution emphasized the need for students getting into the program to actually succeed. They wanted the percent of students one year in to be the percentage that graduate. They did this by requiring high level classes in the beginning to turn away undecided students, they wanted dedication from the beginning. The second point was more student oriented. They wanted students to know the student next to them was equally dedicated if not more so than they are. So when the inevitable group projects came around, you knew you could count on the seriousness of all who are involved. This was also touted as the college’s way of dealing with any slacker problems. On the other issue of students getting discouraged… again, i’d like to see factual comparisons to non-STEM students. But I can tell you this…Many students do get discouraged at some point through their program, it could be the first year or final year or anywhere in between. It’s all part of college and pushing through it. Highlighting stats of one group without comparing it to another proves nothing.

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