Raising the performance of underrepresented groups in STEM-related subjects—and sparking their enthusiasm for those disciplines—has become a major focus of policymakers in recent years.
Yet many uncertainties remain about how best to accomplish those goals.
The questions facing many programs and strategies aimed at helping African-American, Hispanic, female, and other underrepresented groups in math- and science-related studies are common to overall efforts to promote gains in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, observers say. Namely, few of those efforts have been tested and proved to be successful over extended periods of time, and among large groups of students and schools.
“In general, I would say there’s not a really robust research base—where we can say we know what works, or we know how to design a program,” says Heidi A. Schweingruber, the acting director of the board on science education at the congressionally chartered National Research Council, in Washington.
Schweingruber co-directed a 2006 federal study on how K-8 students learn science, how to improve teaching in those grades, and where new research in that area is needed.
Policymakers and educators have made improving the involvement and achievement of underrepresented minorities and girls in STEM a priority. A 2007 report of the Academic Competitiveness Council identified 57 federal STEM education programs—about half of more than 100 listed in the document—that are targeted at improving the representation of underserved student populations in those disciplines and the workforce. The report cited duplication and a lack of coordination among those programs.
Achievement among black and Hispanic students in math and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has improved over time, though their performance still lags behind that of whites and Asian-Americans. The proportion of women and minorities in nonacademic science and engineering professions, such as chemistry, and computer technology, has also increased, though it still falls short of their proportions of the population.
State governments, universities, philanthropies, and private companies have also taken a major interest in promoting STEM among underrepresented students through science, math, and technology contests, Web sites, academies, and other programs with diverse K-12 audiences in mind.
Some of the more promising efforts are seeking to lead students into STEM topics through technology; others are attempting to use the language and experiences of disadvantaged students as entry points to broader science and math understanding.
The three STEM-related programs described here use different strategies to reach a diverse pool of students.