Women and Minorities in the Science, Mathematics
and Engineering Pipeline. ERIC Digest.
by Chang, June C.
Over the next 10 years, the United States will need to train and educate
an additional 1.9 million workers in the sciences (NSB, 2002). Recent enrollment
trends indicate that increased involvement of underrepresented groups is
essential in meeting this demand. Currently, all along the educational
pipeline, students are being lost in the fields of science, mathematics
and engineering (SME). Moreover, the participation and persistence rates
of women and minorities in these fields are dramatically lower than those
of the general student population. In 1998, women who received 56 percent
of BAs overall comprised 37% of the SME bachelor degrees conferred, and
underrepresented minorities, including African-Americans, Latinos, and
Native Americans, received just 12% of the total SME degrees awarded (NSB,
Community colleges have been called upon to help bolster underrepresented
student participation in these fields (Feuers, 1990; NSF, 1996). Two-year
colleges enroll nearly half of all undergraduate students. Women slightly
outnumber men at these campuses, and over fifty percent of ethnic minorities
in higher education attend a community college. As many of these underrepresented
students have their first exposure to higher education SME at these institutions,
community colleges possess a special responsibility and influence in moving
participants through the pipeline. This digest discusses SME interest barriers
and strategies for retaining women and minorities in SME, examining how
community colleges are working to promote increased representation and
success of women and minorities in SME.
FACTORS AFFECTING INTEREST IN THE SCIENCES
Student interest in SME fields continues to decrease. A recent national
study examining trends in undergraduate education reveals a steady decline
in student interest in the physical sciences and mathematics over the last
thirty years (Astin, Parrott, Korn, Sax, 1997). Of those students who enter
showing an interest in SME, certain academic factors are found in common.
These include: earning high SAT math scores and high school GPAs and having
previously taken courses in science and mathematics (Seymour, 1992). In
addition, students in SME at community colleges also tend to be enrolled
full-time, have higher academic aspirations than their peers, and have
a greater interest in transferring to four-year institutions (Feuers, 1990).
After accounting for these factors, however, minorities and women still
appear to have a lower level of interest in the sciences (NSB, 2002). Research
indicates that attitudinal factors contribute to the discrepancy. African-Americans,
Native Americans, and Latinos possess strong cultural values of group and
community membership that may be at odds with the perceived levels of individualism
and competition associated with the sciences (NSF, 1996). They also report
a lack of interaction with current participants in SME fields, which is
a barrier to increased interest. For women, perceptions of competition
and difficulty with majoring in the sciences are paired with low self-ratings
of ability in analytical fields that have traditionally been male-dominated.
Cases of math anxiety and instructors' lowered expectations have also been
shown to hinder women from participating (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997).
To reverse these perceptions and increase female and minority participation,
educators point to the need to strengthen the educational pipeline, especially
at the pre-college and community college level where interest in mathematics
and science develops. To this end, community colleges have partnered with
elementary and secondary schools. The Mathematics, Engineering, Science,
and Achievement (MESA) program, which partners Glendale Community College
with local high school classes, is an example of such an approach (Mendoza,
1991). Evaluations of similar programs at Broward Community College and
Delgado Community College reveal high levels of persistence in these programs
as well as increased women and minority student interest in science and
technology (Green, Blasik, Hartshorn, Shatten-Jones, 2000).
CHALLENGES IN RETAINING STUDENTS
In addition to the challenges of recruiting students as SME majors,
there are also retention issues. These three fields report the lowest retention
rates among all academic disciplines. Approximately 50% of students entering
college with an intention to major in SME change majors within the first
two years (Center for Institutional Data Exchange and Analysis, 2000).
One reason for this loss of students is that many incoming freshmen
lack basic science and mathematics literacy needed for persistence. A study
conducted at twenty-three community colleges in California found that 31%
of students fail to complete SME courses, while another 19% complete courses
but with a grade of D or F (Feuers, 1990). Not only is the course completion
rate particularly low in SME fields, but the percentage of students requiring
remedial work is also increasing, approximately one-third of students at
two-year colleges enroll in remedial mathematics courses (NSB, 2002). These
courses are essential for responding to students' lack of readiness for
college level SME course work. Especially in urban community colleges that
serve a large minority population from low performing high schools, intensive
programs in remedial education are important for increasing minority student
retention in SME (Feuers, 1990).
While deficiencies in students' academic preparation lead to attrition,
research suggests that students' negative perceptions of SME subject material
and career options also play an important role. In a survey of college
students who left SME, the most frequently cited factors contributing to
decisions to change majors included: the belief that non-SME majors offer
greater intrinsic interest, a loss of interest in SME, and a rejection
of the SME career-associated lifestyle (Seymour, 1992).
Farrell (2002) explains that SME fields have failed to highlight the
social value and relevance of the subject material. In particular, the
disconnection between subject material and life applicability has been
shown to affect the retention of women in engineering. For many female
students, the technical nature of engineering does not suggest life skills
of creative thinking and communication. Seymour (1992) explains that the
image of scientific careers also does not appeal to female students' orientation
toward helping others and having a family.
INNOVATIONS IN RETAINING UNDERREPRESENTED STUDENTS
Community colleges have employed several approaches to increase retention
of women and minorities in SME. First, efforts have been taken to address
the perceived lack of relevance of coursework. The National Science Board
(2002) recommends restructuring undergraduate SME curriculum to include
more investigative learning, technology, laboratory experience, and collaborative
work. Programs that have provided students an opportunity to engage in
hands-on, real life projects have been successful in increasing female
enrollment and retention (Farrell, 2002). Changing the curriculum to promote
more collaborative group work has also helped students develop peer networks.
Such social support systems are of particular benefit to underrepresented
students in fields that have previously been perceived as intimidating
or unwelcoming (Farrell, 2002).
Mentoring programs that help socialize students to SME fields are another
form of support for women and minorities. The presence and guidance of
peer or faculty mentors have been shown to positively affect retention
(NSF, 1996). For women in the sciences, mentors help provide a support
network that increases students' self-confidence and feeling of worth to
the field (Goodman Research Group, 2002).
Lastly, two-year colleges are seeking not only to increase retention,
but also to increase transfer of underrepresented students. Currently,
over 35% of ethnic minorities graduating with a bachelor's degree in science
and engineering began their college careers at community colleges (NSF,
1996). To increase these numbers, partnerships between two- and four- year
colleges have been established. Programs like the Community College Summer
Research Program at Occidental College have successfully transferred groups
of students who have later gone on to pursue SME study (Halleck, 1990).
Increased participation of women and minorities is essential in meeting
the projected need for SME workers, and in furthering the nation's production
of technology and scientific research. The community college, with its
diverse student population, is an integral player in advancing underrepresented
student involvement in the sciences. At these institutions, steps need
to continue to be taken to reduce social and educational barriers and encourage
students to pursue and persist in SME.
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