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The Importance of Early, Consistent Exposure to STEM Fields

The lack of minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) occupations has been well-documented. A 2015 article by Mother Jones suggested that the combined Black workforce at Google, Twitter and Facebook could fit into a large plane. The National Science Foundation found that the STEM workforce is no more diverse than it was 14 years ago.

Dr. Marcus BrightDr. Marcus Bright

The combination of an inept outreach to HBCUs and other producers of qualified STEM workers and a lack of large numbers of people of color in the STEM pipeline have contributed to where we are. This highlights and underscores a need for more exposure for students at the K-12 level. An increased level of early exposure will help to make the requisite math courses needed for many STEM careers more relevant to students. Critical math courses are often criticized by students as being too abstract and not relevant to the real world.

It is also important for college students who are in STEM majors to get consistent exposure to opportunities in the STEM economy. This will likely increase the level of persistence in majors that have traditionally seen high levels of attrition. Minority students are more likely to change their majors after they are enrolled in a STEM major.

A broader early exposure to STEM careers would also aid in the creation of a tiered job entry system. Not all jobs in the STEM sector require advanced degrees or even bachelor’s degrees. An increased awareness of positions like radiology specialists and network specialists will create entry points for a broader population of people into the STEM world.

Formal connections and partnerships between STEM companies and schools need to be established and expanded. This will help to encourage K-12 and postsecondary educational institutions to more closely align their curriculum and instructional techniques to match the quickly evolving needs of sectors where great job growth is predicted.

Cities and municipalities should create incentives for employer engagement with schools. Elected officials can play a key part in recruiting STEM employers to urban communities and to appropriate resources to ensure that residents are prepared for careers in these fields. Companies that employ large numbers of STEM workers can also provide avenues of training and employment to the long-term unemployed and underrepresented minorities.

Early and consistent exposure to STEM professionals of color will also help to reduce the stereotype threat that is often associated with garnering the knowledge, skills and abilities to gain access to STEM occupations. The stereotype threat has to deal with the thought process behind Blacks and other minorities not being able to succeed in higher-level math courses that are required to earn degrees in majors like engineering. Researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson defined stereotype threat as “the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group.”

There should also be incentives created for the establishment of apprenticeship programs. These kind of programs are critical to providing exposure and opportunities to those who may not have a natural connection into these companies.

The status quo of an extreme underrepresentation of minorities in STEM fields and occupations must be resisted against with a concentrated effort for greater inclusion. We must come out of our traditional silos to create more access to the jobs of the future by bolstering intentional connections between employers, school districts and higher education institutions.

Dr. Marcus Bright is a political commentator and executive director of Education for a Better America. He also serves as adjunct professor of public administration and political science at Lynn University.

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