For decades now, Bayer has been involved in supporting programs that strengthen U.S. STEM education. For us, it’s simple really. We need a well-prepared STEM workforce to remain vital and relevant in the global marketplace. So investing in that workforce early on makes perfect sense.
That’s why we were shocked when 40 percent of the female and underrepresented minority chemists and chemical engineers polled in our 2010 Bayer Facts of Science Education survey said they had been discouraged from pursuing their STEM studies at some point in their lives. The majority of them pointed to college as the place where the discouragement happened and their professors as the responsible parties.
Last year, in our follow-up survey of faculty who chair STEM departments at the nation’s top 200 research institutions, we continued to be shocked-- and this time truly dismayed -- to learn that this kind of discouragement is still happening on college campuses today.
America’s higher education system is the finest in the world. And its research universities are second to none. But when it comes to recruiting and retaining American women, African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians in STEM, our colleges and universities are falling short at virtually every postsecondary level.
Women and underrepresented minorities comprise 70 percent of the undergraduate student body, but they fill 40 percent or less of the STEM majors. At a time when the country faces significant rates of retirement within the STEM workforce, unprecedented growth in its minority populations, and an urgent need to bring all of its STEM talent to the table, that has to change.
College is a key chokepoint in the STEM education pipeline. STEM department chairs say traditional, introductory classes that “weed out” students early from STEM studies – an approach that’s been called “Social Darwinism” -- are more harmful than beneficial to students. And the effect is worse for female and underrepresented minority students than majority students (i.e. Caucasian and Asian males.) Georgia Tech sociologist Dr. Mary Frank Fox and her team have studied undergraduate STEM programs for women and have found ongoing issues with the atmosphere towards women in the classroom, the structure of academic programs and poor faculty attitudes.
The good news is that there are college STEM programs around the country that are successfully recruiting and retaining women and underrepresented minority students in STEM majors. Here are a few elements they have in common:
1) ACTIVE LEARNING. They utilize “active learning,” which creates more hospitable environments for student engagement. At Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., for example, the introductory computer science courses have been redesigned so that students now take ownership of their learning by writing programs that matter to them.
2) COLLABORATIVE LEARNING. Collaborative learning is also part of the approach used by Harvey Mudd’s computer science department and the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s (UMBC) Meyerhoff Scholars program. Both have replaced highly-competitive atmospheres with group learning that fosters teamwork and is more rooted in the real-world.
3) RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES. Providing first- and second-year students the opportunity to be involved in real research -- not just the classical cookie-cutter experiments -- are the hallmarks of a number of “best practice” undergraduate STEM programs, including UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars, Duquesne University’s Bayer Scholars and the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP).
4) INSTITUTIONAL INTEGRATION. These programs integrate students academically and socially into the fabric of the institution. They provide mentors who work one-on-one with students. To begin achieving this type of integration, many LSAMP institutions also work with high schools to align curricula and incorporate summer bridge programs to prepare students for college STEM studies.
5) ELIMINATE THE “MACHO EFFECT.” There are certain classroom atmospheres that impact female and underrepresented minority students negatively. In computer science, for instance, there’s something known as the “Macho Effect.” It’s what happens when students with more experience are vocal about it and intimidate other students. Harvey Mudd’s computer science faculty addressed this by creating two separate student groups. The one with less programming experience consisted largely of female students, while the more experienced group was male. At the semester’s end, they streamed the two groups back together and found absolutely no difference in academic performance between them. In doing so, they’ve increased the number of female computer science majors from 10 percent to 35 to 42 percent annually, and have become a model for other colleges.
Clearly, there’s more to do in terms of changing faculty attitudes, implementing institutional change and getting top leadership buy-in. But these programs are proving that by making certain adjustments to their instructional approaches and providing a social net to help students make the successful transition to college, they are succeeding in a way that traditional programs are not.
In the 21st century, let’s hope they become the rule, not the exception.
Rebecca Lucore is the executive director of the Bayer USA Foundation.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.