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Future of Work Q&A

How to Get More Students of Color Into STEM: Tackle Bias, Expand Resources

By Kevin Bushweller — March 02, 2021 5 min read
John Urschel
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The numbers are troubling. Only 7 percent of the people who earn STEM degrees are Black, according to the most recent federal data. That percentage did not change much at all between 2008 and 2018, but it did rise from 7 to 12 percent for Hispanic college graduates.

In the working world, the percentage of Black people working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics drops even lower. Bottom line: There are very few STEM role models for students of color.

John Urschel is trying to change that reality through his own personal story and by talking to high school students of color around the country. Urschel, who is Black, is a former professional football player for the Baltimore Ravens and the author of Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, which made the New York Times Bestseller list.

On track to wrap up a PhD in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this spring, Urschel is determined to get more students of color interested and achieving in STEM fields, especially math. While at MIT, he has been involved in the school’s MathROOTS program, which works to encourage more females and students of color who are in high school to pursue studies and careers in STEM fields.

In a conversation with Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Bushweller and other reporters and editors at Education Week, Urschel talked about his journey from being a student whose 1st grade teacher initially misjudged his intellectual abilities and wanted to hold him back a year to a PhD candidate at one of the nation’s top universities, tackling the highest levels of mathematics.

Following are some of the key insights from that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

In your book, you write about a situation when you were in 1st grade in which your teacher wanted to hold you back a grade because she saw you as a “typical minority student unable to keep up in a classroom setting.” Yet when your mother insisted the school test your knowledge and skills, you were way ahead of your peers. How often do you think minority students face similarly biased assumptions?

Certainly more often than I would like. I visit a good amount of schools. I typically try to aim for the high school level. Even talking to parents of children in high school, they tell me these [similar] stories of when their kids were younger. It’s important that when we look at a student that we really try to diagnose what their situation is based off the characteristics of what they’re doing, not things like the color of their skin or the household they’re born into.

When I was growing up, one of the most important things to my mother was that whatever I wanted to do, whatever I wanted to be, whatever I really desired, she really wanted to make sure that the only thing that could ever, ever hold me back would be a lack of talent, whatever talent means, a lack of work ethic, or just plain bad luck. She really was very adamant that she never wanted it to be because of the household I was born into, or a lack of resources.

Over time, you developed real confidence in your math skills. What message should educators be sending to all students, and especially to students of color, to build that kind of confidence?

I would say specifically in mathematics and STEM, one thing that is really important but somehow doesn’t really come across as I would like it to, is that whatever you are doing in math, wherever you are at in math, you are at a given place. And that place you are at, meaning what you know and what you don’t, doesn’t say anything about your intelligence level or your ability to do math, and that getting better in math and in quantitative things takes work, it takes time.

What matters most in building that confidence?

What really matters is resources, what really matters is how much a child is nurtured and fed things. This is just my opinion, but I would say that, by and large, if I had to choose between giving a child a little bit more innate math talent or a little bit more resources, I think, really, resources is what is a very good and bigger predictor [of future success].

I like to think I am pretty good at math. But I am also very much aware that my ability in math was honed through countless, countless hours of very hard work, of struggling and working through things, and lots of setbacks and lots of growth. And I think that is something that people don’t realize enough.

How can educators help kids—especially those who typically shy away from STEM fields—learn to embrace that hard work in areas like math, science, technology, and engineering?

I think that’s a tough one, especially the concept of difficulty, because I do believe there is a sweet spot for every person, given their age and where they’re at, and also the type of person they are, between work and reward. This is an important thing that you need to make sure you get right. I am working on things for days and days and days, and I don’t see a reward for a while. That’s OK for me. That’s not OK for a 7- or 8-year-old.

But the bigger thing I would say is a slight shift in focus on what the goal is and what is important. Too often, the importance and the goal get focused on getting the right answer. But getting the right answer has never really been my focus on things. The goal is to try to truly learn something.

You were a high achiever in football as well as math, playing for Penn State in college and the Baltimore Ravens in the National Football League. How are math and football complementary?

I would say that the thing about football that was really important for me and helped me, in math and just in general in life, is just the feeling of being part of a team. Seems like this is pretty universal: No matter what you want to do, no matter what you want to be when you grow up, the thing that is almost universal is that you are going to have to work with other people, you’re going to have to work with other people for prolonged periods of time, and your success is inherently tied to other people.

Any parting advice for educators?

I would recommend making sure parents have access to educational materials that show them what their child is learning, what they’re covering, and how these things work. That’s something that could be really helpful. When a parent just sees a homework sheet, it can be quite difficult if they don’t have the resources to understand how certain mathematical concepts are being taught.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as How to Get More Students of Color Into STEM

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