Diversifying the STEM Pipeline

While the face of America may be changing rapidly, the face of the STEM workforce in America isn’t going anywhere fast.

According to Change the Equation—a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition launched by 100 business leaders to improve STEM education—the vast majority of STEM workers in 2014 were either white or Asian men. In that year, whites or Asians made up 89 percent of the engineering workforce, 85 percent of the computing workforce and 83 percent of advanced manufacturing. Women in 2014, meanwhile, were only 12 percent of the engineering workforce, 26 percent of the computing workforce and just 10 percent of advanced manufacturing workers.

The pipeline of women and minorities into STEM careers isn’t looking too good either, said Karl Reid, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers.

“Over the past 12 years, the percentage of African-Americans who receive bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering has not budged,” Reid said. “In 2000, only 8.6 percent of African-Americans earned degrees in these disciplines. In 2012, that number had boosted up to 8.8 percent.”

Claus von Zastrow, chief operating officer and director of research at Change the Equation, said research has shown which programs are effective in getting more women and minorities to enter into STEM fields. What’s lacking, he said, is often a commitment from state policymakers to make long-lasting changes.

“There are some states that are leading the way,” von Zastrow said. “I think it’s because they’ve heard from their business communities and employer communities that there’s a huge skills gap, that we can’t be on a sustainable course if the 70 percent of the population which is female and/or a person of color is so woefully underrepresented in the STEM workforce. That has put a lot of pressure on state leaders to act.”

Iowa’s Scale-Up

One of those states taking action is Iowa, where Gov. Terry Branstad signed Executive Order 74 in 2011, which created the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Jeff Weld, executive director of the council, said its main goal is to “inspire and generate interest” for STEM careers.

“This one … is an edu-nomic development initiative,” Weld said. “I think that really characterizes what we’re doing with bridging the worlds of education and economic development and industry.”

The council is supported annually with a $5.2 million appropriation from the state, combined with an almost matching amount from the private sector. One of its major initiatives is called Scale-Up, which promotes exemplary STEM programs statewide. 

“This year, 14 of them (the programs) got selected and we have put those 14 programs into the hands of almost 3,000 educators, touching over 100,000 kids this year,” Weld said. “It’s mind boggling to think about the numbers and the reach and the impact.”

Weld said each of the programs selected for Scale-Up has to provide the council evidence of how it increases diversity in the STEM pipeline. The reason why the council is focused on increasing diversity is easy to understand, Weld said.

“There’s a moral imperative and there’s an economic imperative,” he said. “The moral imperative is that every Iowan ought to have access to these wonderful, recession-proof egalitarian careers. And anybody who would exercise anything but opening, welcoming strategies has got a screw loose.

“The economic imperative is (that) statistics don’t lie. Our state is rapidly diversifying. … We better be welcoming. We better be diversifying our talent pipeline or our state can’t sustain this economy.”

Arizona STEM Network

The Arizona STEM Network, led by Science Foundation Arizona, is a similar model to what Iowa is using. A collaboration of business leaders, educators, policymakers and philanthropic groups, the network seeks to put proven programs into schools to help encourage more students to look at STEM fields.

“We have STEM clubs,” said Ken Quartermain, director of the Arizona STEM Network. “We designed a holistic STEM club where a school could take it and literally drop it into their school and immediately have in place everything they need to know to do a STEM club.”

Quartermain said the foundation has partnered with the city of Phoenix to do public service announcements aimed at increasing the number of girls interested in STEM fields. The foundation also is working in conjunction with Google, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and Phoenix Central School District to open a charter-type school that specializes in computer coding. The school will draw from several neighborhoods with a primarily Hispanic student population.

“A lot of minority, underserved populations are struggling economically,” Quartermain said. “The fastest way of improving those family situations is to have jobs available to them that are high-paying jobs. … We know statistically that’s jobs in the STEM arena. That requires us to build an entire education infrastructure that is concentrating on that, one that gives kids a vision of what STEM means.”

Million Women Mentors

Iowa’s Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds also has been a big supporter of increasing the number of minorities and women in the STEM fields. She launched the Million Women Mentors program across the state in 2014.

Million Women Mentors is a national program aimed at recruiting 1 million male and female mentors in STEM fields to increase the interest and confidence of girls in these high-tech jobs.

“I’ve been trying to encourage other lieutenant governors across the nation to participate,” Reynolds said. “Our goal is to have 5,000 female and male mentors mentoring young women from seventh grade through professional (levels). The goal is to get them interested in STEM subjects in junior high, high school and to keep them interested once they go into postsecondary education and once they enter the professional field.

“When we launched the initiative almost a year ago, we had at the point, I think, already 15 companies that had committed to participating. I think we launched with 500 mentors already signed up and ready to go. Today, we have 71 companies that are participating and 1,800 mentors in place.”

Reynolds said encouraging the state’s students to pursue high-tech careers is one of her passions.
“I tell the kids when I’m talking to them, you can’t hide from math anymore,” she said. “It’s involved in everything; embrace it. Find a way that it can be fun and you will get to write your future.”