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Why Diversity in STEM Matters and How To Boost Participation in Schools

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are responsible for many of the advancements of modern society. Industries associated with STEM include robotics, chemistry, medicine, and mechanical engineering, among others. 

Diversity is a vital part of building a better world, but societal biases and hiring discrimination have created a lack of diversity in STEM education programs and careers. According to the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, people of color make up only 24% of professionals in STEM

This lack of diversity of race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, education, and religion can hold back education programs and companies from reaching their full potential. Including people of diverse backgrounds in STEM classrooms and workplaces invites diverse thinking and innovation, providing benefits for individuals, organizations, and the world as a whole.  

Insight From a Wider Range of Individuals and Demographics

Diversity in STEM offers insight into the life experiences, values, and beliefs of a wide range of people. These diverse perspectives foster creativity in the classroom and the workplace. 

Every person and every demographic experiences the world in unique ways, and inviting these unique perspectives helps to improve the practices of STEM fields. The inclusion of a wider range of demographics in STEM classrooms and organizations creates environments where new solutions and creative innovations can take place.  

Effects on Coding and Algorithms

Over the years, researchers have found clear examples of biased algorithms. These biases stem from the kinds of data provided to these systems. One example is the use of hiring programs to weed through large pools of applicants. In 2022, the United States Department of Justice issued a warning to U.S. companies regarding the use of discriminatory algorithms in the hiring process. Some algorithms discard applications due to the mention of women’s colleges, names that are associated with specific cultures, or an applicant’s disability. 

Coders are human beings and inherently influence the algorithms they create due to their life experiences and unconscious biases. Diverse teams of coders can reduce the impact of these biases. The inclusion of more diverse perspectives in STEM can help these technological advancements create a more welcoming society instead of perpetuating discriminatory practices. 

Equity of Opportunity

Systemic inequality has created disparities in how different groups of people interact with the world. One example of this inequity lies in the racial differences in generational wealth, with African American households having a median wealth of $24,100, while white households have a median wealth of $189,100. 

Another example of inequality of opportunity can be seen in the ways that gender impacts the workforce and financial success. Women currently make up 34% of the STEM workforce, with men dominating the field. Many of the highest-paying jobs are in STEM, specifically technology, so this gender imbalance can lead to financial imbalances between genders. 

Economic injustice and societal biases have limited the racial and gender diversity and opportunities, but STEM classrooms and organizations can help promote equity. By providing STEM education for a diverse population and opening doors for people with diverse backgrounds, STEM fields can move towards a more inclusive and equitable future.   

More Accessible Technology

Increasing accessibility helps all STEM professionals. For example, the Cloud Lab at Carnegie Mellon University is creating a biology and chemistry lab that can be accessed by scientists around the world using a software interface. This lab provides new ways for scientists with disabilities to conduct research using accessible software, while also living near their personal and medical support system. One scientist who has utilized the lab is Andrew DeYoung, a CMU doctorate student whose research, focused on battery-powered technology, is inspired by his experiences during power outages as an individual with spinal muscular atrophy. 

These same experts inherently have differing perspectives based on their backgrounds. Not only can they inspire others with similar backgrounds to accomplish great things, but they can also create technology that aims to minimize pain points experienced by the disability community. 

Challenges to Diversity in STEM

Despite the advantages of a diverse pool of STEM employees, several challenges prevent people from entering the field of STEM, including:

  • Representation in education: While women earn a high percentage of health degrees, representation in other STEM fields is limited: only 19% of computer science degrees and 22% of engineering degrees consist of women. In a similar trend, African-American students earn only 7% of STEM degrees. 
  • Pay gaps: Within STEM fields, there are pay gaps between genders and races. For example, women in STEM earn a median income that is 74% of men’s median income in similar fields. Black professionals in STEM fields earn 78% of what white professionals in STEM fields earn. 

These experiences can discourage students from diverse demographics from entering into STEM — an unfortunate result that perpetuates an endless cycle. To increase diversity in STEM, educators and professionals must work together to increase representation and directly address pay gaps within organizations. 

How To Boost STEM Participation in School Across Demographics

Bringing more diversity to STEM careers can start with students’ experiences in school. Schools can help to boost STEM participation across demographics in many ways, including: 

  • Diverse role models: When students learn about diverse STEM professionals, they are better able to imagine themselves in STEM fields. With this purpose in mind, the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity has created resources to help connect teachers and students with diverse role models and mentors in STEM. 
  • Project-based learning: Successful, project-based learning can be seen in school automotive programs. These classes provide students with hands-on experience with various diesel engines, such as the Cummins 4BT or the Cummins 6BT. Students also learn how to build these engines and solve problems through practical experience. 

Diverse role models and project-based learning provide students with the confidence they need to dive into STEM education and learn. These methods can encourage students to participate in STEM classes and pursue STEM careers in adulthood. 

How To Encourage STEM Education in Homes and Communities

Young people can explore STEM education outside the classroom in their homes and communities. For parents, caregivers, and community members, there are several ways to encourage STEM education, including: 

  • Asking questions that are open-ended and invite research and debate.  
  • Encouraging curiosity and innovation wherever possible. This can include fixing small problems at home or exploring the community. 
  • Bringing math and science into conversations at home, the grocery store, the doctor’s office, and countless other locations.  

These methods do not require any additional materials or funds and provide adults with simple ways to encourage scientific inquiry and curiosity outside of school. 

Helpful STEM Education Resources

Countless resources can help teachers and community members promote STEM education and support students interested in pursuing STEM. These resources include university programs, books, podcasts, groups, and websites, including: 

    • Public Broadcasting Service: PBS provides videos, articles, and lessons about a variety of STEM topics. 
    • Edutopia: Edutopia provides resources for parents and teachers who are interested in including project-based STEM learning in their classrooms and homes. 
  • Mind Research Institute: The Mind Research Institute provides videos and lessons that help students engage in STEM through an active, hands-on approach. 

By using helpful STEM education resources, students and their communities can help create a more diverse future for STEM.

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