Who Wants to Be a Rocket Scientist? Race, Gender, and the STEM Divide

Criminal. Gangbanger. “Baby daddy.” Drug dealer. Ball player. Brainstorming recently about the psychological impact of media images with a group of African-American ninth graders in my Young Male Scholars program, these caricatures were the primary images they associated with black men. White men were linked to images of power, leadership, entrepreneurship, intellectualism, and heroism, i.e., the stuff of scientific invention and discovery. Bucking the stereotypes, a few students in the group have expressed interest in becoming civil engineers or game designers. Yet, at every turn, the messages they receive from the dominant culture about who has the capacity to succeed in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (commonly referred to in policy discussions as STEM) are insidiously clear. In a recent article in The New Yorker, esteemed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson reminisced that he’d been advised to pursue sports instead of science by one of his high school teachers. Far from being a throwback to a bygone “less enlightened” era, Tyson’s experience is the norm for many African-American students in re-segregated U.S. schools. While Tyson is widely revered as an icon of science literacy in humanist and atheist circles, there has been little to no humanist or atheist critique of the legacy of segregation that informs STEM inequities. For many humanists of color who live in communities where black and Latino youth are being relentlessly pipelined into prisons, redressing educational apartheid overall is more critical than the mainstream secular emphasis on creationism and school prayer. Stanford University professor Linda Darling Hammond has dubbed the deep race and class divide in American public education the opportunity gap. In high poverty schools of color, this schism is exemplified by the narrowing of the curriculum through high-stakes tests, as well as the pervasiveness of unqualified teachers, overcrowded classrooms, long-term subs, high student-to-college counselor ratios and zero-tolerance discipline policies that over-suspend, criminalize, and push out black and Latino youth. Nonetheless, since the election of President Obama and the success of other high profile people of color, the right has been unrelenting in its propaganda about post-racialism, colorblindness, and meritocracy. According to this shopworn fantasy, institutional and systemic barriers to academic achievement no longer exist and affirmative action is an egregious form of reverse discrimination. Yet, as the political rhetoric has become more hostile to affirmative action and targeted “diversity” initiatives, the national climate for diversity in science education and academia has stagnated, if not worsened. According to a report from the Washington DC-based STEM Connector group, overall interest in STEM has declined among African-American high school students and female students of all ethnicities. This decline is especially pronounced in engineering and technology majors and careers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs.” NCES estimates that in a typical year just thirteen African-Americans and twenty Latinos of either sex will receive PhDs in physics. Nationwide, African-American and Latino students are least likely to have access to quality STEM instruction. Moreover, they’re more likely to be saddled with negative cultural stereotypes and assumptions about their lack of intellectual ability in math and science. At the high school level, they are often excluded from the gatekeeper Advanced Placement (AP) and college prep classes that are virtually required for admission to top colleges and universities. According to the College Board, “The vast majority of black high school graduates from the Class of 2011 who could have done well in an AP course never enrolled in one because they were either ‘left out’ or went to a school that didn’t offer the college prep courses.” In Silicon Valley, fount of U.S. technological innovation, fewer than 25 percent of black and Latino high school students successfully complete algebra. Moreover, only 20 percent of Latinos and 22 percent of African-Americans graduate having passed the necessary courses for admission to University of California and Cal State University campuses. These factors contribute to the abysmal numbers of African-American and Latino students who go on to major in STEM and graduate with STEM degrees. A recent U.S. Department of Education report concluded that “more than one half of all African Americans who enter bachelor’s degree programs in STEM-related disciplines either drop out of college or change majors and graduate with a degree in a non-STEM field.” The report also held that 65 percent of African-American students who started out majoring in STEM don’t graduate with a STEM degree, a higher rate than that of other groups. In its “State of Black Education” report the Campaign for College Opportunity maintained that, “Gaps between blacks and other ethnic groups in college-going and attainment have remained virtually unchanged for more than a decade, and in some cases, have worsened.” These gaps are apparent throughout K-12 education, where even high achieving black female STEM students face barriers that their white counterparts don’t. For example, Karly Jeter, a former student of mine who is now a freshman at Hobart and William College, had a 4.0 GPA during her senior year and took rigorous courses but was routinely stereotyped by some of her science teachers as underachieving. An aspiring oncologist, in high school she was generally only one of two or three black students in her AP classes. Reflecting back, she bitterly recounted how her AP English teacher excluded her from a list of students (all Asian and Latino) he predicted would pass the mock AP exam. When she was one of the few who passed he accused her of cheating. In her chemistry class she and other African-American students were criticized by their teacher as having no other ambition in life besides playing sports. Despite the fact that African Americans are the second largest ethnic group at the school, only 4 percent were enrolled in AP courses. It must be pointed out that the rampant criminalization of black students is also a big factor in inequitable STEM access. Nationwide, black children are suspended and expelled more than any other racial/ethnic group in U.S. public schools. Even though studies have shown that black students don’t offend at higher rates than white students, they receive harsher penalties for similar or lesser offenses. In a widely publicized case, Kiera Wilmot, an African-American eleventh grader from Florida, was arrested at school after an experiment she’d conducted accidentally exploded in a classroom. Although there were no damages or injuries caused by the incident, Wilmot, an exemplary student with no prior disciplinary record, was expelled. In her book, Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education, researcher Sandra Hanson contends that, despite significant institutional and societal barriers, there is actually greater interest in science among African-American girls than in other student populations. She frames this seeming paradox in historical context, stressing that “early ideologies about natural inequalities by race influenced the work of scientists and scholars as well as the treatment of minorities in the science domain. Racism is a key feature of science in the United States and elsewhere.” Indeed, cultural representations of science as the domain of white and Asian males, promoted by the media, academia, and public policy, reinforces STEM barriers for youth of color. Consequently, nurturing role models, culturally responsive teachers, and other adult leaders are crucial. As Hanson notes, “Textbooks and teachers focus mainly on science knowledge and inventions created by white scientists. Hence [students] are seldom made aware of the contributions of African Americans (much less African American women) in science.” Organizations like the California-based Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) are working to change these perceptions. Over the past few years LPFI has coordinated a STEM summer immersion program for low-income high school students of color at UC Berkeley, the University of Southern California (USC), and UCLA among other schools. This fall, the LPFI is organizing a STEM advocacy conference at USC for youth of color in South Los Angeles schools (which are predominantly African American and Latino). The conference is designed to counter institutional racial/gender barriers to STEM achievement by promoting culturally responsive approaches to college preparation and mentoring. A key feature of the conference involves connecting South L.A. youth with STEM faculty of color. Yet, as one faculty member observed, a central quandary in planning such an event is the dearth of tenured African-American and Latino STEM faculty at the university. This has a negative impact on the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of students of color. Decades after one of the most well-known physicists in the world (and the host of the new Cosmos series debuting Sunday) was advised to shoot hoops for a living, systemic barriers to STEM still belie the myth of American meritocracy. Tags: