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Obama Education Secretary: Expand Access to STEM, Now

Obama Education Secretary: Expand Access to STEM, Now

By John King


A former secretary of education issues a rallying cry to expand access to STEM. 

By John King

The author is the president and CEO of The EducationTrust. He served as U.S. secretary of education from 2016 to 2017. 

During Women’s History Month, our nation celebrates the contributions of women in our society — those history makers who inspire women, girls, men and boys alike to dream bigger, reach further and change our country and the world for the better.

This past winter, I brought my daughters to the National Museum of African American History and Culture to see the premiere of Hidden Figures. The film depicts three pioneering Black women in the Jim Crow-era South whose mathematical prowess helped astronaut John Glenn take flight at the height of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. A line from the start of the movie — spoken by a teacher — resonated with me.

The teacher urges the parents of young Katherine Johnson, the film’s main character and a mathematical prodigy, to nurture the girl’s talents, saying, “You have to see what she becomes.” What Katherine becomes is an analytic geometry whiz, a trailblazer who propelled NASA’s early accomplishments and a remarkable role model.

That teacher’s words should be a call to action for all of us today.

Indeed, we have to see what all our young girls can become — and to do so, we must give them the resources and opportunities to discover their passions, fulfill their potential and lead our nation as the next generation of scientists, innovators, inventors and explorers.

But girls and women in our country are underrepresented in the study of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and in the pursuit of STEM careers. It’s a trend we can trace, in part, to gender stereotypes that emerge early. A new study shows that as young as 6 years old, girls become less likely to associate being smart with being female — which can discourage them from choosing careers in fields that demand intellectual brilliance, including math and science.

Just last year, the federal Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) revealed girls are underrepresented in some advanced courses, such as physics. But the CRDC also showed that disparities in STEM learning can be traced to inequitable access to these subjects — especially in schools with high concentrations of students of color.

Providing every student … with an excellent and equitable education is critical to communicating to our children that anything they wish to become is achievable. 

For example, only a third of high schools with large Black and Hispanic enrollments offer calculus, compared to 56 percent of those that serve small numbers of these students. And less than half of high schools with high Black and Hispanic enrollments offer physics, while two out of three high schools with low numbers of these students do so.

Such disparities feed inequities in higher education and the workforce. African-American females earn just 3 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 2 percent of doctoral degrees in STEM fields; Hispanics are similarly underrepresented. In 2015, of the more than 5 million tech jobs in America, only a quarter were held by women — with the percentage of women of color in these positions in the single digits.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I am hopeful because programs throughout the nation are demonstrating it’s possible to expand opportunities in quality STEM learning to young people who have been underserved.

New York City’s Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM) program offers a residential summer learning experience to low-income female and male students, exposing them to rigorous math studies. BEAM also includes five years of mentoring, designed to help students develop pathways to STEM careers.

And via workshops and after-school programs, Black Girls Code provides young girls from underrepresented communities in cities throughout the country with training in computer science, coding and game design to prepare our future female technologists.

At their core, these and other efforts are about giving our children — all our children — the freedom and tools to become whatever they dream they can be.

Innovative college programs also are changing the calculus on who pursues and excels in STEM.

Through STEM BUILD, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County — a recognized leader in bringing underrepresented people into science and engineering — aims to increase the diversity and success of students earning STEM degrees. Students engage in internships and mentoring. For added support, they live together in a community of peers studying the same majors.

At Alabama A&M University, high-achieving STEM scholars are selected for full, four-year scholarships, and a Summer Bridge program provides students with support in study skills and math before they arrive on campus. These efforts are paying off: In 2014-15, the American Society for Engineering Education ranked AAMU ninth of 352 institutions in the U.S. that produce African-Americans with bachelor’s degrees in engineering.

But there’s still much to do. Recently proposed cuts to federal funding for teachers’ professional development, college aid for low-income students and scientific and medical research would take the nation in the wrong direction.

Instead, we should invest in quality early-childhood education; support for teachers, including STEM-focused professional learning; advanced STEM coursework for low-income students and students of color; efforts to increase college completion and ambitious research in STEM teaching and learning.

Providing every student — especially girls, students of color and others who have been underserved — with an excellent and equitable education is critical to communicating to our children that anything they wish to become is achievable. It’s also necessary if our nation is to live up to its promise as a land of opportunity for everyone. As Hidden Figures teaches us, “We all get there together, or we don’t get there at all.”

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