A shortage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers is threatening to push the United States from its global leadership position as a key innovator in these fields, say CEOs and other executives at Fortune 1000 STEM companies.
Most of the executives agree that more minorities and women must enter STEM fields to solve the talent deficit. At present, Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians account for only 8 percent of employees, according the executives surveyed in a new Bayer Corporation study examining diversity in STEM fields. Women make up 20 percent.
Across the board executives blamed the pre-college school system for low representation of women and minorities in science and technology fields.
Dr. Mae Jemison, who made history as the first Black woman to go into space, agrees that grade school experiences play a major role in determining how many women and minorities go into science and technology.
Nearly all the executives surveyed say the best way for students to learn science is through a hands-on approach. Jemison agrees, and goes on to explain that every child finds science fascinating. “But then we go into school, it’s drilled out of us because we don’t teach science in exploratory way … kids are just taught to memorize things.”
Each day high-school science teacher Hau Tran struggles to teach chemistry to his students, who are mostly Black and Hispanic and attend West Potomac High School in a Virginia suburb just outside Washington, D.C. Students need science literacy. Otherwise, “if they never learned science well that major is closed off to them” once they enter college, Tran says.
Tran says the solution is to introduce more science in elementary and middle school. “They didn’t have it in their younger years so they don’t have an interest to study it later.”
In his native country of Vietnam, Tran studied biology, chemistry and physics starting in middle school and through high school. He credits this early exposure to science as the reason he chose to complete a college degree in chemistry.
Belinda Pirtle, a Black woman who runs her own technical training company, says the small number of minorities in her field is not because a lack of aptitude. Instead, it’s because the way educators teach. “People learn differently but in the education field they only teach one way … so if you have students who learn differently from the way it’s presented, they’re not going to get it because that’s not the way they learn.”
But the burden does not just lie with teachers. Jemison says the STEM industry as a whole must actively work to develop and recruit diverse workers.
Pirtle also thinks minority students need more role models. Other than Jemison, she couldn’t name any other Black female role model in science and technology.
However, the small numbers of women and minorities might be an asset for those looking to enter the STEM work force. “We’re underrepresented in the field, and that in itself makes us very attractive to hiring managers,” Pirtle says.
Jemison encourages young women and minorities interested in science and technology to believe in themselves: “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it, you can do it.”
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