Black and Latinx Americans are underrepresented in STEM jobs. There are many reasons for this: limited access to quality education, discrimination in recruitment and promotion practices, and disparities in STEM-based programming across youth communities, to name a few.
Meghna Chakrabarti, host of WBUR's On Point, sat down with a panel of experts for a wide-ranging conversation on how to develop solutions to reverse these trends. She was joined by Tarika Barrett, CEO of Girls Who Code; Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics; Adrian Mims, founder and CEO of The Calculus Project; Karl Reid, former executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers.
Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.
On how representation in STEM industries inspires the next generation
Tarika Barrett: "The lack of representation and the fact that very often our girls and especially our girls of color don't see women who look like them. And we say it all the time at Girls Who Code that you cannot be what you cannot see. And we cannot minimize that. It's such a huge issue for our girls. And, you know, when we think about the kind of change we want to see in the industry, it means things like hiring folks who look like me at the most senior levels. That's a huge factor.
"Another one ... in terms of leveling the playing field in STEM is this huge challenge we face as women and women of color in tech; this misconception that somehow girls aren't interested in, especially our girls of color. So we're constantly kind of up against this challenge when we know it's not true. We did a study, for example, with Accenture recently where we saw that 50% of women leave the tech industry by the age of 35. That compares to 20% in other jobs.
"So we know that it's this combination of the kind of culture we're seeing here, our girls of color, we make them excited. We spark their interest. They fall in love [with] computer science, and then they end up encountering these systemic barriers when they've quote-unquote, "made it." So we know it's not just this pipeline problem that everyone points to. The data coming out of tech — the tech industry — around women and representation, it's abysmal. And yet it all gets kind of excused away by saying that we don't have qualified candidates."
On the need for thoughtful, intentional mentorships
Nigel Jacob: "It has to be done thoughtfully. So I've seen lots of moments where, you know, Black or Brown kids, young people, get dropped into these mentorship opportunities and there's a complete mismatch in terms of cultural competency on the part of the mentor, not understanding how to talk to a young Black man from a very different place.
"And so I think we also have to encourage and push corporations, large bureaucracies, organizations and so on to train people to understand, to build empathy so that there's an actual conversation happening between the mentor and the mentee. And it's not just the worst case scenario is that you have a big company 'A.' We have a bunch of Black and Brown young people coming in and we feel good about ourselves because we had placements with them. But they're basically a waste of time because they have no common or shared understanding about how to navigate the space."
On finding creative entry points for students to learn STEM
Karl Reid: "These young people learn how to apply what they've learned in creative ways. So in other words, while they are learning how to build catapults or they're learning how to build gliders, they're learning underlying math and science that's associated with it. I call it 'theory through the lens of practice.' They can locate that theory in creative ways. The way things are traditionally taught is that we tend to introduce theory first, then application. And what we've done is we flopped that.
"David Kolb has done that as well with the learning model [Kolb's experiential learning theory]. And Algebra Project has done that. And I'm sure that Adrian has. Where he starts with application first, demonstration, application, show you what it could do and then learn the underlying math and science. As we move into a testing regimen, or what Lani Guinier calls 'testocracy,' we move away from those creative ways to teach the fundamentals of our science and learning. And unfortunately, it sucks out the life out of the interest in science."
On how sorting and tracking high school students narrows the pipeline to STEM jobs
Adrian Mims: "I always look at STEM as two-tiered: you have two-year post-secondary, four-year post-secondary. You don't necessarily need calculus for two-year post-secondary, but you still need strong math and science skills. That could be the person working for Herb Chambers as an automotive technician. That person who is an automotive technician is a computer scientist, is an electrician.
"So how do we get students to these jobs? It's very difficult when school districts are sorting students by tracking. You had in Boston Public Schools advanced work classes, tracking students as early as fourth grade, determining who would get the most rigorous courses that have the best teachers. You have now, this is pervasive throughout our public education system, where students are being tracked as early as seventh grade and they're determining right then and there who will have the rigorous math courses and have the best teachers.
"So you have students who participate in these amazing programs. They love STEM. And it's just like what Dr. Barrett pointed out. They go to these amazing summer programs and they get excited, but then they come back to their respective schools and that fire gets extinguished because they may want to become a scientist. But you know what? If you don't have that math and science background, your dream will be deferred or probably extinguished."
This event was made possible with support from Olin College of Engineering.