Proposed Federal Legislation Seeks to Boost Minority STEM Education

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Calling it an issue of national competitiveness, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) announced a new bill on Tuesday that seeks to increase the proportion of minority students who graduate with STEM degrees, as well as the number of minority faculty members who teach them.

“When we look at researchers, engineers, we don’t see America, the diversity,” Johnson said Tuesday at a Capitol Hill news conference and roundtable hosted by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc., or NACME.

To illustrate the point, Johnson cited statistics that show only 22.1 percent of Latino students, 18.4 percent of African-American students and 18.8 percent of Native American students in STEM fields complete their degree within five years, versus 33 percent and 42 percent for White and Asian students, respectively.

To help lessen these disparities, Johnson introduced the “Broadening Participation in STEM Education Act”—a bill patterned after similar legislation Johnson has introduced in previous years to increase the level of women who complete STEM degrees.

The Act introduced Tuesday goes further than Johnson’s previous bills to include underrepresented minority groups.

According to a draft of the bill obtained by Diverse, the proposed measure would enable the National Science Foundation to award grants on a competitive basis to colleges and universities for “implementing or expanding reforms in undergraduate STEM education in order to increase the number of students from underrepresented minority groups receiving degrees in these fields, and to recruit, retain and advance STEM faculty members from underrepresented minority groups at institutions of higher education.”

The bill was warmly embraced by higher education leaders that NACME assembled Tuesday for an event titled “Increasing American Competitiveness: A Conversation with Business and the Academy on Broadening Participation in STEM.”
         

Among the supporters was Dr. James H. Ammons, president of Florida A&M University, which has a variety of summer programs meant to interest both talented and troubled African-American male students in STEM careers.

“If America is going to maintain its leadership in innovation, we must produce more scientists and engineers,” Ammons said in an interview after the event. “This legislation creates a mechanism that will allow colleges and universities in this nation, along with the National Science Foundation, to produce the next generation of engineers.”

But just how much the proposed legislation might move the needle on minority participation in STEM fields—if at all—is difficult to project.

The proposed legislation does not list any level of funding to achieve its objectives, and congressional sources say the bill seeks to get the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to use existing funding within the agency to award the grants.

Irving McPhail, president and CEO of NACME Inc., said that, despite the lack of a specific dollar amount, the bill can still make a difference.

“The congresswoman is trying to address a problem of underrepresentation and suggests we do something aggressively to address that,” McPhail said of the bill. “We could continue to do the same thing we’re doing, but, without a specific focus on the need to address this pressing national problem, the problem can be swept away and not really addressed as fully as it needs to be.”

Under the bill, NSF grantees would be selected based on:

 

  • The likelihood of success in undertaking the proposed reform effort … including the extent to which the administrators of the institution are committed to making the proposed reform effort a priority.
  • The degree to which the proposed reform effort will contribute to a change in institutional culture and policy such that greater value is placed on the recruitment, retention and advancement of faculty members from underrepresented minority groups.
  • The likelihood that the institution of higher education will sustain or expand the proposed reform effort beyond the period of the grant.
  • The degree to which evaluation and assessment plans are included in the design of the proposed reform effort.

While Johnson’s bill focuses on increasing participation in STEM at the post-secondary level, a number of panelists suggested that disparities in STEM education will never be eliminated unless more is done to get students interested in and academically prepared for STEM careers while they are still in the K-12 system.

“If we don’t start in middle school, we lose children’s interest in science, and, if they don’t study math in high school, they don’t come to college,” said Jerry M. Hultin, President of Polytechnic Institute of NYU.

Hutlin said colleges and universities also must give STEM students a way to express their creativity as opposed to teaching in rote ways more common in foreign countries, such as China.

“We’ve noticed that young people don’t want to be engineers in a box,” Hultin said. He explained the most students are driven by a desire to reduce poverty and to make the world healthier.

To cater to such student interests, NYU has initiated a program called i2e, which stands for “invention, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

The program involves helping students solve “everyday problems” by inventing products and applications under the auspices of start-up companies.

NYU also has a $7.2 million, six-year grant from NSF to run a Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC).

Among other things, the center seeks to create K-12 and post-secondary activities that help broaden the participation of groups underrepresented in STEM.

“We’d love the NSF to step up more often and say, ‘We’d like to do that,’” Hultin said. “That’s why this legislation (the Broadening Participation in STEM Education ACT) is so great.”

But Johnson said she would be “remiss” if she didn’t acknowledge that the bill will not be easily passed, if at all.

“It’s very difficult in this environment right now to do anything that’s progressive,” Johnson said.