Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists

Earlier this year, President Bush signed into law the America Competes Act with the goal of maintaining the United States’ edge in technological innovation by devoting funds to improve science education and technology research.

The passage of the act should come as no surprise. America’s ability to remain globally competitive has been debated for some time, with scholars and pundits alike focusing on Asia, primarily China and India. The bill aims to re-emphasize science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields as a priority in the United States. The renewed interest in science and math education, at a level not seen since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik more than 50 years ago, presents the best opportunity the United States has seen in a long time to reassess how it is educating all segments of the population and to make the appropriate changes and improvements.

Despite some general provisions to reach out to low-income and underrepresented groups, the America Competes Act’s primary emphasis is on international competition and does not recognize the specific populations in the United States that are falling behind.

Let’s look at how minorities are represented in the STEM fields based on figures provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Within the computer and mathematic fields, African-Americans, who make up 12.4 percent of the U.S. population, account for only 7.3 percent of all professionals; Hispanics make up 14.8 percent of the population but just 5 percent of these professionals. In architecture and engineering, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans account for 5.6 percent, 5.9 percent and 9.7 percent of all professionals, respectively.

How can we account for this glaring underrepresentation of African-Americans and Hispanics in fields that are vital to ensuring the United States maintains a leadership position in technological innovation? One answer can be found in our education system. American students consistently perform below other developed nations in scienace and math, with African-Americans and Hispanics scoring at the low end of the spectrum. Students in these minority groups often fall behind their peers at an early age. The average scores from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress show African-American and Hispanic students scoring significantly lower — by as many as 20 to 35 points, in some cases — than White and Asian/Pacific Islander students.

Certainly teacher quality directly affects students’ academic performance, and the America Competes Act addresses the need for highly qualified teachers within the STEM fields, through the expansion of the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program. However, more must be done. We need to take advantage of the government’s increased priority on preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers by emphasizing the critical need for quality minority role models within the teaching profession. Why? Because a teacher’s role is not only to teach, but also to inspire and serve as an example. After all, teachers are the first group of professionals with whom children interact, and outside of the home, most children spend the overwhelming majority of their young lives in a school environment.

Currently, minorities are as significantly underrepresented as math and science educators as they are in most other STEM professions. Based on figures from the 2003-2004 Digest of Education Statistics, 6.8 percent of elementary school math teachers were African-Americans, with Hispanics accounting for an additional 6.3 percent. Both groups accounted for an even smaller percentage of science instructors, at 6.5 percent and 4 percent, respectively. Even in California, where African-American and Hispanic children account for 7.8 and 47.6 percent of public school enrollment, African-American and Hispanic teachers accounted for a mere 4.5 and 15.6 percent of the state teaching population as of the 2006-2007 school year.

The America Competes Act contains provisions to reach out to minority students and potential educators, but first the underlying reasons behind the underrepresentation must be addressed. Feedback from the diverse student population at National University, which ranks third on Diverse’s “Top 100” for graduating the most minorities with master’s degrees in education, has provided remarkable insight into the issue. Teacher assessment tests, such as the PRAXIS or California’s CSET, can be seen as one contributing factor serving as a roadblock for many aspiring minority educators. Content knowledge becomes less important than language proficiency, and teacher candidates otherwise qualified in both the subject matter and in instructional practices are placed at a cultural disadvantage. There are also larger socioeconomic challenges at play, which is a separate issue.

However, each contributes to a vicious cycle: the lack of highly qualified minority teachers leads to few minorities entering the STEM fields as scientists, engineers and teachers, thereby resulting in the current underrepresentation in these fields.

— Dr. Dana L. Gibson is the president of National University, the second largest private, nonprofit institution of higher education in California.

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