Increasing STEM interest and engagement requires creating supplementary education strategies to support high minority achievement and positive social outcomes throughout the PreK-16 pipeline.1
We must embed STEM firmly in the cultural DNA of our communities to truly realize the American Dream.
I am an African American male who grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey—a product of resilience in a sea of education inequity, stirred by the currents of systemic racism. Amid the sanctioned social, academic, political, and economic discrimination, emerged a series of court decisions that challenged New Jersey’s education funding practices and its treatment of predominantly minority school districts. Abbott v. Burke2 revealed the egregious inequities between New Jersey’s affluent and low-income school districts, emphasizing the funding inadequacies of the state’s education policies and their negative impact on poorer urban districts, mostly communities of color. The lack of “social will” and advocacy to provide substantive educational opportunities (i.e., academic enrichment, culturally responsive and student-centered instruction and curriculum, supplemental education programs: formal and informal)3 for low-income students accelerated the deterioration of their families and communities. Having attended several schools in systems that made up the “Abbott Districts,” as they were called, my own family’s journey illustrates how we endured the adverse impacts of a discriminatory education system and how it shaped our mindsets, and that of Black and Brown communities, for generations to come.
Raised in a family of 10 (6 male, 4 female), by a single teen mother fleeing an oppressive Clarksdale, Mississippi in the late ’60s, I was the first born in New Jersey to complete high school, college, and obtain a graduate education. The only other high school graduates were three of my sisters. Nearly all my siblings have been incarcerated for extended periods. However, it was my brothers who spent most of their formative years in reform school and subsequently state correctional institutions. At a time when most young men and women our age should have been nurtured and mentored for college and career opportunities, we navigated a community that did not place a high emphasis on engaging Black and Brown children academically. On the contrary, a disproportionate application of disciplinary action (suspension, school expulsion, and arrests) was levied against Black and Brown children, characterizing them as criminals.4
The criminalization of our Black and Brown bodies was on full display in the media, often vilifying us as Hip-Hop thugs and drug dealers. Ironically, most of my academic motivation came from “conscious rappers,” Hip-Hop lyrists like, Rakim (Eric-B & Rakim), KRS-1 (Boogie Down Productions), Professor X the Overseer (X-Clan), Chuck D (Public Enemy), and Queen Latifah. These voices and others provided a counter narrative to those demonizing and legally targeting Black and Brown communities in the wake of the “war on drugs” and “zero tolerance” policies prevalent in the ’80s and ’90s. We now know that the daily diet of pseudo-culture our communities were fed contributed to its social decay and strengthened the school-to-prison pipeline.5
My second eldest brother’s love for astronomy and science was evident. Growing up in the ’80s, he forced us to watch Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, rather than the Kung-Fu movies we preferred. The passion and excitement he exhibited for astronomy would rival that of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Hence, the pain I feel when I reflect on his unrealized dreams and those of my other siblings; potential astronomers, scientists, architects, engineers, and explorers that never were. Their true academic potential never fully cultivated, nor realized, replaced with the trappings of a pseudo-culture, promoted and capitalized on through mass media.6 Instead, punitive policies created an educational and social nightmare lasting for decades—one from which families like mine have yet to awaken.
Striving: The State of National Efforts to Diversify STEM
“For the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line.” – W.E.B. DuBois7
As a result of my lived experiences, I have become a staunch advocate for substantive education policy that increases equity and access for all communities, placing a particular emphasis on increasing STEM interest, and college and career readiness among communities of color. Understanding the “STEM dilemma” currently being experienced by the United States has been framed in the literature repeatedly throughout my lifetime, most notably through the “A Nation at Risk”8 report in 1983, again in “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,”9 and most recently through a series of reports such as the biennial report produced by the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering.10-13 These publications have provided grim predictions of our nation’s educational trajectory if we fail to implement policies that increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM pathways.
According to the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (CEOSE), part of the framework needed to improve American competitiveness involves broader participation in STEM. 12,14 Considering the growing minority population – forecast to eclipse the white majority in the U.S. population by 206514 – and aging STEM workforce, the need to recruit and retain underrepresented minorities in STEM is vital to the prosperity and security of the United States.12 Key federal agencies have leveraged funding and developed efforts to increase underrepresented minorities in STEM pathways.15,16
In spite of these programs’ successes, they do not have the capacity to meet the demand for U.S. citizens with the requisite skills needed for the growing STEM workforce.17 NSF’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) and Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) are just two of the federally funded programs that provide colleges, universities, and K-12 partners with an opportunity to compete for funding to increase the number of underrepresented minorities entering STEM degree programs.18 We need more targeted and robust STEM policies that will scale successful programs, increase and broaden STEM interest at the elementary and secondary school levels;19 the United States’ global competitiveness in STEM is at stake, and at the very least, requires interest convergence.20
A Call-To-Action: How can we build engagement in STEM?
Engagement in STEM can be built through the establishment of a formal STEM Learning Community. It is recommended that the community adhere to a cohort model, with targeted engagement activities, and enhanced curriculum options. This holistic education approach provides not only a strong academic framework, but a strong cultural and social one as well. As the community evolves, it supports STEM recruitment, retention, and completion by creating a positive impact on the personal, environmental, and behavioral determinants that influence self-efficacy.21 Below are suggestions for educators and administrators to establish engaging STEM learning communities that increase student success in undergraduate STEM education:
Establish a Cohort Model
- Organize around degree plan/major
- Engage students in peer academic and social support
- Incentivize student participation (i.e., financial, academic, and social benefits)
Promote Targeted Engagement Activities
- Implement student-led weekly meetings
- Emphasize student leadership development
- Provide opportunities for student input and buy-in (i.e., community, academic, and professional activities and experiences)
- Require student advisor/mentor weekly contact (5 – 10 hours)
- Share informal and formal progress reports with advisor/mentor
- Share research and industry internship opportunities
- Increase on-time degree completion (encourage a minimum of 15 credit-hours per semester)
- Require research and peer tutoring (5 -10 hours)
- Incorporate research, community, and service learning commitments
- Student volunteer and tutoring commitment (i.e., K-12 tutor/mentor industry internship/volunteer)
- Programmatic research commitment [Special Topics Course -Fundamentals of Research course taught by advisor/mentor – use existing academic unit(s)]
- Student commitment to obtain and complete summer research experience (i.e. Research Experiences for Undergraduates)
Implement Curriculum Enhancements
- Establish STEM boot camp (remediation) between semesters to provide opportunities for students to retake placement test (test out of developmental courses) as a pathway to college level coursework
- Establish a STEM bridge program to provide incoming freshman the opportunity to complete freshman or developmental coursework (if required), gain post-secondary exposure, and develop mentor/mentee relationships during summer term; or partner with existing community and industry STEM bridge/enrichment programs (i.e., the National Society of Black Engineers, Go-to-High School, Go-to-College, 100 Black Men, 100 Black Women, and the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemist and Chemical Engineers)
- Implement a 1-4 credit “Special Topics Course.” The course provides a formal academic setting to increase student engagement [i.e., MTH 252 (use existing course unit) Fundamentals of Research, academic advisement, peer tutoring, and industry exposure]
The community’s components and strategies center around intrusive (sometimes called intentional or proactive) advising helping to establish a caring and beneficial relationship with students—leading to increased academic motivation, persistence, and completion.22 Proactively connecting with students before a situation occurs23 is not “hand-holding” or parenting, it is having active concern for students’ academic preparation; it is a willingness to assist students in exploring services and programs to improve skills and increase academic motivation.24
The artwork featured at the top of this page is titled “America” by Dr. Calvin Briggs.