Author: Flowers, Lawrence
Date published: December 8, 2011
It is now widely understood that increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce is an effective approach to address the economic and technological challenges faced by our country. However, recent national reports supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other national organizations provide strong evidence to support the prevalence of underrepresentation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines and careers.
Research also indicates that declining minority participation rates in STEM fields are attributed to a lack of institutional support, systemic intransigent attitudes, mendacious recruitment efforts, lack of financial support, professional marginalization, hiring inequities, low academic self-concept and inadequate and unsatisfactory K- 12 education programs in math and science.
In 201 1, NSF released "Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering," a statistical report illustrating the involvement of women, ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities in science and engineering fields. Specifically, the report shows that underrepresented students received approximately 17 percent of the science and engineering bachelor's degrees, 10 percent of the science and engineering master's degrees, and 9 percent of the science and engineering doctorates. The NSF report also reveals that minority men and women encompass less than 10 percent of the nation's employed scientists and engineers. While growing steadily over the years, this percentage is disproportionately low, when compared to contemporary census data.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education projects that the minority workforce will double in the next 10 years. Unfortunately, forecasts regarding minority participation in STEM careers are not as optimistic. Trends indicate a decline in representation at every level of the professional STEM pipeline. According to researchers, these occupational estimates will remain constant if immediate actions are not taken.
Meanwhile, access to online distance education programs has increased significantly in the past decade. Many academic institutions offer a wide variety of online courses and online degrees in STEM. Moreover, millions of college students have reported enrolling in at least one online course while pursuing an academic degree.
One potential method of broadening participation in STEM is the development and implementation of effective online STEM courses, online STEM enrichment programs, valuable online mentoring programs, webinars, and virtual conferences. Widespread web-based delivery of STEM content and instruction may help to connect traditional and nontraditional minority college students and K- 12 students from urban, rural, or suburban communities and could significantly improve access to STEM education and increase representation of underserved populations in STEM disciplines and STEM occupations.
Institutions of higher learning and faculty interested in establishing online STEM courses and programs should consider the following strategies. Initially, colleges and universities must first improve their information technology infrastructure to accommodate increased student use and STEM-related instructional software packages necessary to teach online courses. In addition, in order to initiate a successful STEM online program, schools must appoint qualified educational technologists to facilitate course development and training opportunities for STEM faculty as well as to support other online faculty development activities.
Quality online STEM courses require a tremendous amount of preparation to develop and maintain. During the course development phase online faculty must consult current educational research literature for data regarding the best online teaching and learning strategies for science and engineering students.
Most academic institutions have the infrastructure in place (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle) to develop and implement online education initiatives. In terms of sustainability of effective online programs, institutions of higher education must include the hiring of several trained staff members (e.g., educational technologists) to support faculty training opportunities.
Minorities have shown a propensity to enroll and graduate from online higher education programs and contribute to a large percentage of the student body population at for-profit online college and universities such as the University of Phoenix. Matriculation in online environments offers minority students an educational environment free of historical barriers that demoralize scholarly aspirations and severely affect academic success in science and mathematics.
As for historical barriers, a number of reports suggest that one of the factors that affect minority participation in STEM disciplines is based on a negative perception of minorities regarding their aptitude for success in STEM fields. Such behaviors are ostensibly transmitted in traditional educational settings often leading to poor academic outcomes, low student selfesteem, and high attrition rates among minority STEM students.
It is time for stakeholders to pursue national STEM initiatives and fight the exigent problem of underrepresentation in STEM and aggressively deal with the moral and social issues that have historically had a negative impact on underserved populations, the nation's workforce, and America's global competiveness. The time is now.
BY DR. LAWRENCE FLOWERS
- Dr. Lawrence Flowers is an assistant professor of microbiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Fayetteville State University.