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Why Are the Underrepresented Minorities Underachieving in STEM?

Whenever Tamara L. Battle taught middle and high school students as a member of the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education program — or GK-12 — she always made it a point to talk about her previous struggles in math and science.

“I always tell students what my background is to let them know that I know what I’m talking about,” says Battle, who served as a GK-12 fellow at the Cesar Chavez Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, D.C. from 2006 to 2008.

“But I always tell this story about me failing my first physics class [in college], and now I’m teaching [physics],” Battle says of the time when she earned an F in physics at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the 1990s.

Battle says the idea behind sharing her personal story was to help students at the mostly African-American and Hispanic school overcome the fear of failure in what is often unfamiliar terrain.

“I try to reduce the fear … because I know sometimes as minority students, that has already been infused at an early age,” says Battle, who now helps manage the GK-12 program as a Science Assistant within the Division of Graduate Education at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Battle’s perspective echoes a plethora of emerging reports that have been probing the reasons behind disparate participation and completion rates in STEM majors among underrepresented minorities.

“This apprehension may, at worst, create barriers to entry or, at a minimum, create barriers to the information needed to be fully successful,” states a 2011 landmark report from the National Academy of Sciences titled Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads.

Experts say one of the most effective ways to turn things around is to provide coursework in middle and high school to give students a sense of what STEM courses entail at the college level.

“A lot has to do with not just coming to college without the science and math skills used in those fields, but also just exposure in middle and high school to the coursework that would prepare one for advanced level math and science,” explains Dr. Terrell Lamont Strayhorn, an associate professor of Higher Education at the Ohio State University, where he also serves as Faculty Research Associate in the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity.

Peter Arcidiacono, an economics professor at Duke University who has studied STEM degree completion rates, cited the need for a better sense of the workload involved with STEM majors.

“Students — both minority and not — don’t know that the sciences require more study time on average and give out lower grades,” says Arcidiacono. “Hence, many students start out in the sciences, both minority and not, but switch out.

“Those with worse preparation switch out at higher rates regardless of race,” Arcidiacono adds.


Uneven growth

Despite varying degrees of progress in recent years, STEM degree completion rates along racial and ethnic lines remain stubbornly askew.

For instance, although Black and Hispanic students experienced 3.7 and 27.7 percent growth, respectively, in STEM degrees awarded between the 2000-01 and 2008-09 academic years, Black and Hispanic students represented just 7.5 and 7 percent, respectively, of all STEM degree awards in the 2008-09 academic year, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report, titled Postsecondary Awards in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, by State: 2001 and 2009. Those figures are disproportionately lower than each group’s percentage of the U.S. population in 2010, which was 12.6 and 16.3, respectively.

A 2010 research brief by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, titled “Degrees of Success: Bachelor’s Degree Completion Rates among Initial STEM Majors,” also found major differences in STEM degree completion rates. Specifically, it found that White and Asian-American students who started as STEM majors have four-year STEM degree completion rates of 24.5 and 32.4 percent, respectively.

“In comparison, Latino, Black, and Native American students who initially began college as a STEM major had four-year STEM degree completion rates of 15.9 percent, 13.2 percent, and 14.0 percent, respectively,” the brief states.

On a more positive note, the NSF says underrepresented minorities’ shares of science and engineering bachelor’s and master’s degrees have been rising since 1991.

However, a closer look reveals that most of the progress has been in specific concentrations that lie outside of engineering and the physical sciences.

“Since 1991, the greatest rise in the share of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees earned by underrepresented minorities has been in psychology, the social sciences, and computer sciences,” the NSF says on a statistical website titled “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering.”

“Since 2000, underrepresented minorities’ shares in engineering and the physical sciences have been flat, and participation in mathematics has dropped,” the NSF website states.


A positive impact

As an African-American woman, Battle knows firsthand about some of the challenges that women and minorities face as they pursue STEM majors.

Although she tested high enough to place into a calculus-based physics class, she struggled because she had actually never taken physics or calculus in high school.

On the first day of class at Manhattan Community College, the only other female in the course suggested that they study together because “we’re the only girls in the classroom, and you know it’s going to be harder for us.

“By the end of the semester, she dropped the class, and I was the only female in the class,” Battle says.

Battle decided to carry on. She took an F in the class but retook algebra-based physics to get a better foundation.

Later, she attended Medgar Evers College, the City University of New York, and did so well at physics that she began to tutor other students.

“That earned me a lot of respect from the students, particularly other male students who were physics or chemistry students,” Battle says. “They felt I was one of them. I could think like them and roll with them.”

Battle ultimately went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Medgar Evers, a Master of Arts degree in geology from City College of New York and a Master of Science degree in atmospheric sciences at Howard University.

It was at Howard that Battle became a GK-12 fellow. Among other things, the GK-12 program puts fellows in K-12 classrooms in an effort to give them opportunities to find ways to better explain science to broad audiences, including students. Battle focused on having students do hands-on projects that involved the study of weather.

Studies show GK-12 has had a positive effect for both the K-12 students and the fellows. For instance, one program evaluation found that the majority of teachers — 89 percent — reported that they thought that GK-12 “had a positive impact on students’ perceptions of who can be a mathematician/scientist.”

On the higher education front, the GK-12 evaluation found that:

  • The majority of former GK-12 fellow graduates quickly found employment that met their career goals; 67 percent of master’s and 81 percent of doctoral fellows were employed within three months of graduating.
  • Slightly more than half of former doctoral and a third of master’s fellows are engaged in scientific or technical research.
  • Nearly three-quarters of former doctoral and a quarter of master’s fellows are employed in higher education.

Battle has worked in higher education herself. When she taught physics at Westwood College, she made it a point to gauge what students’ experiences have been like in math and science.

When students expressed frustration on a particular concept, she said she would seize the opportunity to let the class know “no question is stupid.”

“We’re all gonna help each other get through this,” Battle says she would tell the students. “That kind of begins to reduce the pressure.”

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