How to get minority students into STEM careers

The ultimate goal isn't to attract underrepresented minority students to STEM, but to turn them into working scientists, Andrew G. Campbell says. Success won't come from trying the same ideas that have only worked partially so far. (Credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr)

Decades of work to get more minority students into the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) “pipeline” haven’t changed this fact: traditionally underrepresented groups remain underrepresented.

In a new paper published in the journal BioScience, two biologists analyzed the issue and proposed four research-based ideas to ensure that more students from underrepresented groups emerge with PhDs and STEM careers.

Senior author Andrew G. Campbell, associate professor of biology at Brown University, says it’s almost as if people have satisfied themselves with the thought that the STEM pipeline rests on flat terrain, passively and reliably conveying to the finish whatever quantity of students enter.

The paper cites data showing that for decades many students haven’t made it to the top of the pipeline. To stem leaks and backflow, the pipeline requires consistently applied energy all the way through.

“That pipeline we’ve laid? We’re stuffing it but the yield is less than we expect,” says Campbell, who wrote the review along with postdoctoral scholar Stacy-Ann Allen-Ramdial. “That’s because it’s not a horizontal pipeline, it’s a vertical one. You can’t just stuff it and walk away.”

The STEM pipeline ‘leaks’

(Credit: Brown University)
(Credit: Brown University)

The data appear encouraging at the pipeline entrance: Similar proportions of underrepresented minority (URM) and non-URM incoming college freshmen (a little more than a third in each case) express intent to study STEM subjects.


Generally, however, URM students are less likely to graduate than non-URM students. While 24.1 percent of US college freshmen came from URM groups in 2000, only 18.5 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients did in 2004.

The losses specific to STEM become most evident in the transition into graduate school, Campbell and Allen-Ramdial show using National Science Foundation statistics.

After college in 2009, 36 percent of the URM students holding STEM bachelor’s degrees left the field rather than starting a STEM job or graduate program, compared to 30 percent of comparable non-URM students. Ultimately, URM bachelor’s degree holders were even more unlikely to earn doctorates.

While URM students earned 18.3 percent of the STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2004, they earned only 12.1 percent of the STEM doctorates in 2010.

The workplaces those surviving STEM students entered at the other end of the pipeline were even less diverse. Individuals from URM groups held about 10 percent of STEM jobs in 2010.

To serve the volume of students entering the pipeline, Campbell and Allen-Ramdial propose four ideas based in educational research and practices that have emerged in recent years: alignment of culture and climate; partnerships between research and minority-serving universities; critical masses of minority students; and faculty engagement in diversity.

Check the climate

Universities often articulate diversity as a core value in STEM fields and elsewhere, but that culture can become misaligned with the actual climate in which faculty members, administrators, and students work. The potential dissonances, which can disillusion URM students, will vary but they often remain unknown to senior administrators and therefore unaddressed.

Campbell and Allen-Ramdial recommend annual, confidential surveys of culture-climate alignment conducted by third parties, rather than the administration itself.

Key partnerships

Campbell has experience in forging partnerships between his research-intensive university and undergraduate-focused, minority-serving institutions. He has worked with partner-institution colleagues to identify gaps in the undergraduate training of students that can and must be addressed to ensure their success in graduate school and research.

“The inconsistencies between successful undergraduate student performances documented in glowing reference letters and grades and the students’ subsequent poor graduate performance can be preempted by building inter-institutional partnerships that allow for curricular mapping of undergraduate courses onto graduate curricular training plans,” the authors write.

Also, such partnerships expose students to research earlier at undergraduate-focused institutions and provide faculty at research-intensive universities with opportunities to gain “cultural competence,” or familiarity with and understanding of URM students.

‘Critical mass’

Partnerships and other thoughtful measures, such as focused recruiting, can help universities with graduate programs achieve not just overall numbers of URM students, but also a “critical mass” within URM groups. When a university meets a goal of bringing in 10 URM students, that won’t necessarily help those students thrive if they all come from very different backgrounds.

Instead, Campbell and Allen-Ramdial note, universities should recognize that students need to be with others with whom they can identify and from whom they can find support.

“What is critical mass [in a program]?” Campbell says. “That number is when students feel the greatest sense of belonging. It doesn’t have to be hundreds. It could be five.”

Professors matter

Finally, the paper argues, faculty members, not just senior administrators, must embrace the goal of diversity.

University presidents come and go, on average, every decade. Provosts and medical school deans turn over twice in that time. Tenure-line professors can have a more lasting impact because of the uninterrupted longevity of their work.

“Faculty members should be incentivized to engage more deeply in diversity by making it a meaningful scholarly activity, alongside research and teaching,” Campbell and Allen-Ramdial write.

“The opportunity to formally report on diversity-related activities as part of annual review and reward criteria for merit and promotion should be established.”

The ultimate goal is not to attract URM students to STEM but to turn them into working scientists, Campbell says. Success won’t come from trying the same ideas that have only worked partially so far.

“We’ve been doing the same thing and making the same investments for 30 years,” he says. “The pipeline is the infrastructure. Some changes in the infrastructure need to be made.”

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health supported the study.

Source: Brown University