STEM: The Next Great Education Divide<br />

In President Obama’s Inauguration speech and recently in the first State of the Union address of his second term, he stressed the importance of “owning our energy future” and the critical role of science, technology, engineering and mathematics---better known as STEM education---as the key to this success.

Yet, there is one question that remains unanswered: who exactly are we educating with the foundational skills necessary to “own our energy future”?  Which students are we pushing into the STEM pipeline?

America is in the midst of a demographic shift with projections stating that by the year 2050 the majority of Americans will be racial minorities.  However, current numbers suggest that the STEM fields are primarily dominated by White males. This imbalance is unsustainable.  In order for the US to remain globally competitive in STEM fields, which the president notes are “critical for our success," there must be significant investment made into the growing number of communities of color that are thoroughly underrepresented in these fields.

In a 2010 report conducted by the Level Playing Field Institute entitled: The STEM Education Opportunity Gap in California states:

In California, home of Silicon Valley and much of the innovation in information technology, the state is facing a shortfall in the number of college-educated workers needed to fill the demands of jobs requiring college degrees and a lack of home-grown talent to stimulate economic growth and innovation within STEM fields.

The report goes on to highlight that although the demographics have rapidly changed in California with a majority of residents labeled as racial minorities, “the K-12 public education system in California continues to leave a large majority of California’s students (particularly low-income, Latino, and African-American students) unprepared in Math and Science, and lacking access to higher education and high-paying occupations in STEM fields.”

If STEM is the key to our success in the 21st century, then educating the burgeoning minority population in this area is the lock that needs to be opened. Yet these communities face significant educational opportunity gaps that further limit their access. A study by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc. on U.S. engineering degrees, found that African-Americans, American Indians, and Latinos account for 34 percent of the total U.S. population (ages 18 to 24), but earn only 12 percent of all undergraduate degrees in engineering.

Far too many children of color and low income children are receiving a low quality education which could prevent their ability to enter into STEM professions. A host of schools that have been labeled "failing" by the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act (formerly No Child Left Behind) have high populations of racial minorities and English Language Learner students. In 2009 the California Annual Performance Index found that economically disadvantaged students and students of color, were predominately concentrated in low performing schools. While the President mentions “smart-schools” and the need for rapid technological advancement, many schools in predominately minority areas struggle to find up-to-date textbooks and hire teachers with advanced degrees. 

If Black students are attending schools whose climates run pipelines to prisons rather than Princeton, owning our energy future may just be a really good line in a speech, unmatched by reality.

So, how are these children supposed to compete when the playing field continues to shift and they have limited to no access to the tools necessary for success?

Further, African Americans and Hispanic children have some of the highest referrals to Special Education and disciplinary rates of any other racial group.  How can we build the STEM pipeline when a majority of black and brown children are being funneled into the Juvenile Justice system? These communities continue to be plagued by low expectations and lack of exposure to role models in the STEM fields. If we are criminalizing children for doing what kids do—like throwing spitballs on a bus— then we may be missing an opportunity to nurture the next generation of innovators. 

School culture and climate play a significant role in students' interests.  If Black and brown students are being tracked into programs brimming with academic inequities and attending schools whose climates run pipelines to prisons rather than Princeton, "owning our energy future" may just be a really good line in a speech, unmatched by reality.

Diversity drives innovation and its absence doesn’t just jeopardize communities of color it condemns our nation to continued reliance on foreign oil and STEM intelligence—proving that we are indeed in a race, but it’s not to the top.

Danielle Moodie-Mills is Adviser to LGBT policy and Racial Justice at the Center for American Progress and Director of Education Advocacy at the National Wildlife Federation.  She is also co-host of Politini, a radio show serving politics and pop culture up with a twist.