Expanding underrepresented minority participation: America's science and technology talent at the crossroads


The National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA, 2011. xv + 269 pp. ISBN 978-0-3091-5968-5.

Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation calls for a larger and stronger science and engineering workforce in the United States. As the authors themselves note, calls to increase the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates have been made over the past six decades because of perceived connections between STEM workforce development and our nation's health, prosperity, and security. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation adds to the existing argument the idea that the science and engineering workforce must be made more diverse—that it must draw on the minds and talents of underrepresented minorities because they are both the fastest growing segment of the population and the least likely to pursue STEM degrees.

The United States stands again at the crossroads: A national effort to sustain and strengthen S&E [science and engineering] must also include a strategy for ensuring that we draw on the minds and talents of all Americans, including minorities who are underrepresented in S&E and currently embody a vastly underused resource and a lost opportunity for meeting our nation's technology needs. (p. 2)

The report defines underrepresented minorities as African Americans, Hispanic or Latino/a Americans, Native Americans and Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. In reading through this report, it is clear that progress has been made in documenting the experiences and achievements of specific groups who fall under the larger umbrella of underrepresented minorities. For example, in discussions of college majors and of science and engineering careers, data on African American and Latina American women are reported separately from Asian American and European American women—hard-won recognition that women do not constitute a monolithic group (see Brickhouse & Potter, 2001). However, additional work is still needed to understand the successes and struggles of all ethnic groups in STEM. For example, because studies routinely aggregate Pacific Islanders with Asian Americans, there is little separate information about this underrepresented group.

Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation is an ambitious report. It surveys the multiple pathways that exist, from pre-K to the university, to the science and engineering workforce. It attempts to speak to elementary, secondary, and university faculty and administrators; informal science educators, teacher educators, and science education researchers; policymakers; philanthropists and nonprofits; local school districts; and state and federal government agencies. It articulates three reasons broad participation in STEM matters, five ways to address underrepresentation at every stage along the STEM educational continuum, six broad recommendations for action, six guiding principles that undergird these recommendations, and two immediate priorities. Its six recommendations for action are (1) to create preschool and early education programs that focus on reading readiness, early mathematics skills, and concepts of creativity and discovery; (2) to improve K-12 mathematics and science education for underrepresented minorities; (3) to improve the preparation and retention of mathematics and science teachers; (4) to improve information, counseling, and outreach so that underrepresented minorities have greater awareness of science and engineering careers, and better access to postsecondary education and technical training; (5) to provide adequate financial support to underrepresented minority students pursuing undergraduate and graduate STEM degrees; and (6) to transform higher education institutions so as to increase underrepresented minorities' inclusion and success in STEM.

In the remaining paragraphs, I highlight three issues raised in this report that science educators should work to address. The first issue is the enormousmismatch between the number of underrepresented minorities living in the United States and the number who work in STEM fields. In 2006, underrepresented minorities comprised 29% of the U.S. population but only 9% of college-educated professionals in science and engineering. The reasons for this mismatch are numerous, systemic, and resistant to change. For example, at the K-12 level, out of all G-8 countries, the United States displays the widest disparity among ethnic groups in reading literacy, mathematics, and science. The differential achievement by group is tied to the unequal distribution of highly qualified teachers: High-poverty, high-minority schools are less likely than low-poverty, low-minority schools to have teachers with more education, better preparation and qualifications in their field, and more experience. At the undergraduate level, although the proportion of African American, Latino/a American, and Native American students who enter college interested in STEM majors is similar to the proportion of Asian American and European American students (around 30%), after 5 years, the former have completed STEM degrees at a substantially lower rate (18%, 22%, and 19% vs. 42% and 33%, respectively). Factors affecting underrepresented minority students' completion include inadequate financial support, inadequate institutional strategies for fostering inclusion, and inadequate professional development of university faculty. Simply put, although we have known for decades that transformation of the preschool to career STEM pipeline(s) is needed (see, e.g., Rowe, 1977), the underrepresentation of many ethnic groups persists.

A second issue is that the report presents little of the science education research on ways student diversity can be used as a resource in science teaching and learning. Although the report's authors unequivocally state that diversity should be viewed as an asset, there are few concrete examples of how diverse students' interests, home languages, and funds of knowledge indeed act as such. In Chap. 3 on K-12 preparation, Wheaton and Ash's (2008) work with bilingual girls enrolled in a marine science camp is highlighted as one example of the effective integration of students' language, families, and culture with science teaching. Tucked away in Appendix H is a list of eight publications by science and mathematics education researchers on underrepresented minorities' participation in STEM; about half of the titles speak to diverse students' agency and success. Entirely missing is how teachers can use students' descriptions of what counts as effective teaching to shape their own practice (Yerrick, Schiller, & Reisfeld, 2011), treat underrepresented students' everyday discourse practices as academically fertile ground (Rosebery, Ogonowski, DiSchino, & Warren, 2010), place students and their community's funds of knowledge at the center of school science projects (Hammond, 2001), foster hybrid learning spaces where students' social worlds and the world of school science productively merge (Calabrese Barton, Tan, & Rivet, 2008) and co-construct with students what it means to be smart science people (Carlone, Haun-Frank, & Webb, 2011).

More prominent in Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation are descriptions of underrepresented minority students as being underprepared—diversity as a hurdle to overcome, a gap to bridge, or a deficit to make up. For example, the authors emphasize that gaps in mathematics and science achievement between underrepresented minority students and their Asian American and European American peers exist in kindergarten and widen over time, in part, because underrepresented minorities are more likely to live in poverty, have a mother who did not graduate from high school, and/or speak a home language other than English. Underrepresented minority children are less likely than European American children to have their family members read to them on a daily basis. Children from low-income families lose additional academic ground in the summer months because they are less likely to have opportunities to engage in mathematically stimulating materials and activities. Underrepresented minority students also routinely internalize stereotypes about themselves, causing them to perform at the level of their internalized stereotype rather than to their true abilities. To be clear, I am not dismissing investigations of underpreparation as misguided. Rather, I argue that the report's vision of diversity as an asset does not fully align with its presentation of underrepresented minority students.

A third issue is that teacher education is considered central to the charge of increasing underrepresented minorities' participation in STEM, but that university teacher education programs are perceived as ineffective in leading this charge. Because “teacher quality is considered the most critical factor affecting [students'] academic achievement” (p. 79), the improvement of K-12 teacher preparation and retention is not only one of six report recommendations, it is part of one of two immediate priorities. The report calls for university teacher education programs to become more rigorous and clinical, much like other graduate programs. It also recommends, however, the proliferation of alternative certification pathways such as the New Teacher Project, the Troops to Teacher Program, and Teach for America. The recommendation to expand the number and size of alternative certification programs is supported by the following research:

They (Harris and Sass (2007) and Ingersoll (2008)) found no evidence that education majors are significantly more productive as teachers than nonmajors, so it seems worthwhile to experiment with “alternative certification” programs that facilitate the entry into teaching of people with majors other than education. (p. 80)

Again, I am not arguing that university teacher education programs cannot better prepare science and mathematics teachers to teach diverse students. I am merely sounding a warning that such programs continue to be criticized and, thus, remain at risk for elimination.

In closing, recruiting, retaining, and celebrating underrepresented minorities in STEM education will require more innovation and more coordinated action. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation takes a long view of educational change: “Given how long it takes to realize gains from educational reform, the national effort must be urgent, sustained, comprehensive, intensive, coordinated, and informed” (p. 7). Science education scholars must work harder and smarter to speed up this change process—both by better informing current policy debates and by making science classrooms more welcoming and generative spaces for underrepresented minorities.