STEM—the pipeline and the culture

What Is

In my last entry (“STEM grows like a weed”) I explored the rapid growth of college majors in science and math and mentioned the relatively low number of women and students of color. I focused on physics, because it is usually thought of as the “hardest” of the hard sciences and because, candidly, it was my physicist son who made me aware of the recent growth in physics majors.

However, this is also a cautionary tale about how atttempts to increase enrollments of women and minorities can easily miss what is going on. Let me tell a story that illustrates how good people can waste their efforts. 

Some years back Swarthmore College, one of the top liberal arts schools in the country, was troubled by the lack of minority students majoring in math. They had not had a minority student major in math in recent memory. Being a progressive school that has tried to nurture diversity, they found this embarrassing. They decided to create special sections of the introductory calculus course aimed at students of color. These sections were smaller and involved more discussion and interaction with the faculty member. The hope was that this personal engagement would attract minority majores. Alas, it had no effect.

The topic of lack of “minority” majors came up at yet another department faculty meeting. It is a small college, so the math department had just a handful of faculty. One member of the faculty was on leave, so they had a visiting professor that year (so often an outsider can see things others miss). The visiting professor was interested in the problem and offered to take a look at the records of the math majors over the previous decade to see if any pattern emerged. 

OK, here comes the punch line. At the next meeting the visiting professor reported that (drumroll here) not a single math major in the last ten years had taken introductory calculus. The fact was that all math majors had entered the college having taken calculus in high school (and probably at excellent public high schools and private prep schools). If you were a minority student from a poor high school that did not offer calculus, you were already far behind. 

On a personal level, my son attended a small rural high school in Oregon that did not offer calculus (and who had coaches teaching some of the science courses). When he decided to major in physics in college, he found he was behind. 

Today the number of physics majors in the U. S. who are women in less than one in four. The total number of women has been growing, although the number of men has grown faster in the last few years. 

The efforts of Swarthmore’s math department to attract more minority students was well intentioned, but it had no effect. I suspect that similar efforts in math and science departments across the country meet a similar fate. The problem is that it is too late. The same thing goes for trying to get more women and minority faculty in STEM departments. The problem is not so much prejudice as it is a lack of candidates. The problem is not so much the institution as it is the culture.

So What?

If we want to open STEM fields, or any field, to women and minorities, we have to focus on the pipeline. The real problem in STEM has its origins at home, in elementary school, in middle school and in high school. 

Progressives have a tendency to believe that problems of inclusion can be solved with institutional interventions. Maybe a few can, but most problems are just too deep. Pressuring the physics department at a major university to be more diverse will have little effect. Even working to attract more women and people of color at universities will have little effect. We have to change expectations and aspirations of girls and kids of color. We have to change the quality of teaching of math and science in public schools. 

One thought on “STEM—the pipeline and the culture”

  1. A couple of quibles:
    1. Upon reflection, isn’t “and who had coaches teaching some of the science courses” something that perpetuates a modern predjudice that wasnt shared by the ancient Greeks? My hs geometry teacher was also my football coach. As I recall, he was a better geometry teacher…
    2. Stuff like Larry Summers as president of Harvard suggesting women lack something in doing stem probably still worth working on…
    Thanks for inviting thought pieces…


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