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Addressing Common Misperceptions to Diversify the STEM Talent Pipeline

Job growth in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) continues to outpace job growth in all other areas. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports that employment in STEM fields will increase by more than nine million jobs between 2012 and 2022. While this will lead to meaningful employment for many, it also poses a challenge as employers are finding it increasingly difficult to fill these roles.


100416_viewsAs we work to bridge the gap between the labor force and the needs of employers, we must also work to diversify the talent pool that will fill this gap. Diverse backgrounds, perspectives and opinions lead to innovation. The challenges we are working to solve in the education and technology space require big ideas. I find that big ideas are born when people with a variety of life experiences contribute to the conversation. 


According to the White House, women and minorities represent 70 percent of college students but less than 45 percent of STEM degrees. This massive untapped talent pool drives us to ask the question, how do we diversify the STEM pipeline? As we confront this disparity, we should address three common misperceptions around STEM in higher education. By increasing the number of women and minorities pursuing STEM degrees, we will see a more diverse talent pipeline.  




First, there’s a widely accepted belief that STEM skills are innate, rather than acquired. Society accepts that “being good,” and inversely “being bad,” at STEM subjects is the product of inherent talent versus practice and study. This is simply not true. In fact, I would argue that confidence, rather than an aptitude towards numbers, will determine whether a student succeeds in STEM subjects. Just as small successes lead to big accomplishments, small disappointments have the potential to lead to larger consequences, such as failing a course, or dropping out of school all together.    


At Cengage, we are committed to supporting the most vulnerable students in higher education by inspiring and instilling confidence in students. We place students at the center of the learning experience and build tools that meet them where they are in their education and life journey. These personalized tools can help give students confidence necessary to overcome challenges. The belief that all students can succeed in STEM subjects will encourage persistence and instill confidence in students, ultimately leading to a more diverse workforce. 


Real-world use


Second, there is the notion that STEM subjects are abstract and irrelevant to most aspects of life. This absence of real-world relevance can cause students to shut down. As content providers and educators, we need to focus on experiential, hands-on learning methods, so that students are able to connect with the end results of their efforts. 


Utilizing real-life scenarios and interactive training activities provides students with context for their work, while encouraging critical thinking skills. By placing a greater emphasis on the everyday applications of STEM knowledge and skills, students will find motivation for persisting through challenging material. Rather than focus on memorization, we should focus on projects and activities that help students understand how to use and apply STEM skills in a variety of ways.     


Broaden the definition


Finally, there’s the idea that STEM skills are only applicable to jobs in traditional STEM industries. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Majoring in math doesn’t mean your only option is to be a statistician. Marketing, product management, interior design and many other professions, require advanced STEM knowledge. By broadening the definition of STEM careers and exposing students to a variety of jobs that necessitate STEM skills, they will be more inclined to advance their studies in these subjects. 


The best, brightest people in the industry do not look, think or act the same. In order to achieve a greater level of diversity in the STEM industry, we must challenge commonly held perceptions around STEM in higher education. If we are able to shift the narrative on these topics, we will see more students, including more female and minority students, pursuing STEM degrees, and ultimately diversifying the talent pipeline.   


George Moore is the Chief Technology Officer for Cengage.

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