STEM educationCorrecting pipeline problems to aid STEM diversity

Published 8 July 2014

Educators and policymakers have spent decades trying to recruit and retain more underrepresented minority students into the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pipeline, to no avail: Traditionally underrepresented groups remain underrepresented. A new analysis of disappointing results in the pipeline’s output leads two Brown University biologists to suggest measures to help the flow overcome an apparent gravity.

Decades of effort to increase the number of minority students entering the metaphorical science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pipeline, have not changed this fact: Traditionally underrepresented groups remain underrepresented. In a paper in the journal BioScience, two Brown University biologists analyze the pipeline’s flawed flow and propose four research-based ideas to ensure that more students emerge from the far end with Ph.D.s and STEM careers.

A Brown University release reports that senior author Andrew G. Campbell, associate professor of biology, said it is 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.

Instead, the pipeline has a steep rise against a gravity of endemic hindrances, he said. Data cited in the paper show that for decades many students haven’t made it to the top of the pipeline. What is needed to stem the leaks and backflow, is consistently applied energy all the way through the pipeline.

“That pipeline we’ve laid? We’re stuffing it but the yield is less than we expect,” said 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.”

A deficient decade
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 an intent to study STEM subjects. Generally, however, URM students are less likely to graduate than non-URM students. While 24.1 percent of U.S. 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.