Once again the National Science Foundation has released its report on diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and once again I find the statistics depressing: Women still earn just 21% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science, a smaller share than a generation ago. They earn less than one-quarter of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and physics. And despite substantial gains since 2011 in the share of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to Hispanic students, Black, Hispanic, and American Indian or Alaska Native students remain substantially underrepresented among bachelor’s degree recipients in almost every broad STEM field.
The United States does a notably poor job of bringing women and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups into many fields of science, medicine, and engineering. And it is costing us. Without women and people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups at the table, essential questions may not be asked, such as, “Is the AI program biased?” Or “What occurs at the intersection of race and sex that causes pregnant Black people to have such poor outcomes in childbirth?”
Many questions need to be asked, from how sex affects basic biologic mechanisms to how race and ethnicity and other social factors influence health and wellness.
Wellesley College, where I work, has managed to defy the status quo. Five of the school’s seven most popular majors are in STEM, and the college is a major contributor nationwide of women who go on to earn advanced degrees in science and medicine, with 80% of our STEM graduates attending graduate or professional school within 10 years. Over the past 10 years, the school has doubled the percentage of STEM degrees awarded to underrepresented students.
It hasn’t been easy, requiring sustained institutional transformation. But it is the kind of transformation that is open to all colleges and universities.
For many years, higher education has worked on a “deficit model,” based on the notion that underrepresented students and women in STEM fields arrive with deficits that must be addressed. A transformative approach recognizes that the deficits may actually be on the institutional side.
Gateway introductory courses in the sciences often shuttle many students off to other tracks. Because the nation’s increasingly diverse students come to college with vastly different high school experiences, it’s time to retire the traditional “weed-out” mentality in STEM teaching, which is as likely to reward privilege as ability. The onus should be on schools to help all of their students succeed.
To that end, Wellesley has created multiple pathways into STEM majors. To begin, we administer a quantitative reasoning assessment to all incoming students because these skills are associated with success in science, engineering, and other quantitative majors, such as economics. We ask students whose preparation may not be as strong as others to take a course to strengthen their quantitative reasoning skills. This class was once seen as a prerequisite for introductory science classes, which inadvertently kept a number of first-generation students (those whose parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree) and those from underrepresented groups from taking science until their second semester, or even second year. In other words, we created barriers in our quest to ensure success. Rethinking the curriculum so quantitative reasoning and science classes could work together as co-requisites removed this hurdle.
It’s important for undergraduates to develop a science identity and a sense of belonging if they are going to persist in STEM majors. We have learned that the best way to bring women — and women of color — into the culture of science, medicine, and engineering is through hands-on experiences. So we have doubled down on experiential learning, incorporating more research into laboratory classes and increasing the opportunities for out-of-class research. The faculty is also making sure that these experiences are inclusive. In introductory computer science classes, for example, putting students with no coding experience into lab sections with students who had coded before made them feel less competent and less welcome. Creating separate sections made it possible to give beginners a chance to discover their own abilities.
It’s essential for colleges and universities to make their students partners in any effort to teach STEM inclusively: They are the ones who can say what actually works. Wellesley’s student leaders host feedback sessions with their peers from underrepresented communities, serve as peer mentors, and help their departments with curriculum development, major requirements, and faculty hiring.
Institutions of higher learning must also invest in faculty members who can inspire and mentor women, minority, and first-generation students in the sciences. It’s important to help faculty members adopt active-listening techniques within the classroom, so every student can contribute and be heard. Teachers and mentors also need to be trained to perceive the barriers that keep underrepresented students out of STEM fields — and to shift the paradigm toward inclusion.
The situation described every two years by the NSF — women and people from underrepresented groups shut out of careers in science, engineering, and medicine before their careers ever begin — is unacceptable in a society so dependent on knowledge-intensive industries and a highly skilled workforce.
Higher education can make a real difference simply by meeting women, first-generation, and underrepresented students where they are and, rather than teaching to exclude, teaching to inspire.
Paula A. Johnson, a cardiologist, is the president of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.