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Q and A: Consortium Tackles Family, Class Issues in Steering Minorities to STEM Majors Q and A: Consortium Tackles Family, Class Issues in Steering Minoritie...

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Q and A: Consortium Tackles Family, Class Issues in Steering Minorities to STEM Majors


Lauren Birney, director, and Jonathan Hill, codirector, of the new STEM Center Collaboratory at Pace University in New York City. 

The United States is not producing enough college graduates to fill jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s no secret that Latinos and blacks, the nation’s largest minority groups, are entering these fields in even lower numbers.

(Related: STEM Gap Widens for Minorities)


“By increasing the numbers of STEM workers among currently underrepresented groups through education, we can help ensure America’s future as a global leader in technology and innovation,” a recent Commerce Department report noted.

With Verizon Foundation funds, Pace University in New York recently launched STEM Center Collaboratory, a place where inner-city teachers, university professors, industry executives, and local, state, and national officials will join force to increase the pipeline of students of color in biotech, health care, engineering, and technology industries.

Heading the project are Jonathan Hill, associate dean at the University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, and Lauren Birney, assistant professor at the School of Education. Hill and Birney recently spoke with The Next America on the challenges and opportunities for getting more minorities interested in STEM. The initiative already has partnered with some 40 schools, teachers, and organizations.


Below are edited excerpts from a recent interview.

What are the major barriers for getting more minorities attracted to STEM degrees?

Birney: The biggest problem is their lack of exposure to the fields. If they’re not being exposed and don’t know what the job careers in the sciences are, the first thing we must do is create those opportunities for students.

Hill: For these students, it’s essential to have mentors. If they say, "OK, I’m going to be a biology major or chemistry major," we’ve got to be providing them with somebody who is going to oversee their progress and give them the mentoring they need because they may not be receiving it at home. For students of color, it’s very powerful to have a mentor who is Hispanic or African-American, as an example of someone who has the skills and who has made it.


You mentioned some students may not be getting assistance at home. To what extent are the parents involved in their kids’ education?

Birney: It’s not necessarily that they don’t want to be involved but that they’re working and may have two or three jobs.They can’t exactly show up for conferences. In California, we created evening classes for parents to participate in the learning process and to educate them on what should be done in the home. It’s not necessarily a lack of knowledge but also a lack of time. Some younger parents have multiple children at home and their lives can be very challenging.

Hill: For parents who are trying to survive in the U.S. with a marginal income, they don’t exactly know what their kids need when they get homework. Some students are being issued homework where you need broadband Internet at home. The digital divide is sadly alive and well in this country. New York is an amazing contradiction where you have some very wealthy folks living literally next door to the very poorest Americans.

What programs or initiatives in your program address the digital divide?

Hill: Mobile technology is certainly one thing we’re looking at as a solution to this problem. We’ve found out that many of these students may not have a computer at home or broadband Internet access, but a significant number do have smart phones. That may be a way to keep them in contact with teachers. It’s not just resources.

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