The Next Frontier of STEM Education: Ensuring Access For Minority Students

if students who are underrepresented in STEM are nurtured, America's sure to be able to meet the demands of the 21st century workforce.

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Despite the growing diversity of America's population, a recent study from the U.S. Department of Commerce (PDF) found that whites are twice as likely to have a science or engineering job as their black or Latino peers. To help eliminate this gap, some of the most innovative STEM initiatives are those geared toward increasing the number of minority students getting involved in those fields.

What better way to get young minority students to fall in love with science than through the culturally relevant beats and rhymes of hip hop? That's the approach of Science Genius, a new urban science initiative which has partnerships with 10 New York City campuses. The project is a collaborative effort between hip hop site Rap Genius, Wu Tang Clan emcee GZA, and Christopher Emdin, an Assistant Professor of Science Education and Director of Secondary School Initiatives at the Urban Science Education Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Last spring in a PBS News Hour interview, Emdin, who's been dubbed the "Hip Hop Professor" noted that "If we really want to change STEM education, and we talk about as a nation that we don't have enough people to fill those kind of STEM jobs that we have, then what we have to do is focus on the folks who've been pushed out, because they're the numbers that we need to push back in." Indeed, students in the Science Genius program, says Emdin, were so engaged by the use of hip hop that they went from hating science to "crafting science rhymes, and saying, you know what, I can declare a science major."

Nine of the best student participants from the partner schools converged at Columbia University in June for the first Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. (Bring Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science) competition. Students dropped rhymes on a variety of STEM topics that aligned with the New York state core curriculum. Jabari Johnson, a senior at Harlem Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts won with the brilliant, "Quest for Joulelry":


Despite the gender diversity in the students participating in Science Genius, there's no denying that both hip hop and STEM fields are pretty male-dominated. That gender disparity's felt acutely in computer science, where the "brogrammer" culture's alive and well. Women represent a mere 12 percent of computer science graduates, a steep drop from the 37 percent represented in 1984. Black women are fewer than 3 percent of those overall graduates, and Latinas and Native Americans are less than 1 percent.

Bay Area technologist Kimberly Bryant says the absence of minority women in STEM isn't about a lack of interest in the fields. Instead, says Bryant, a "lack of access and lack of exposure to STEM topics are the likelier culprits." So in April 2011, Bryant founded Black Girls CODE, a nonprofit that's working to boost the number of black, Latina, and Native American women in STEM. Her ultimate goal is for Black Girls Code to become the "Girl Scouts of technology" and teach one million minority girls to code by 2040.

The grassroots program's doing that by providing minority girls ages 7 to 17-years-old with after school workshops and summer training in robotics, mobile app development, game, and web design, as well as much-needed mentorship from women already working in those fields. This summer, Black Girls CODE's second annual Summer of CODE held workshops in 10 cities and taught 2,000 minority girls how to code. The demand for Black Girls CODE's programs is certainly there. There are "waiting lists for our programs in well over 30 cities across the nation," says Bryant.

Diversity is what "drives innovation, creativity, and enhances the bottom line," says Bryant. But if students who have been historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math fields continue to be nurtured and encouraged by programs like Science Genius and Black Girls CODE, America's sure to be able to meet the demands of the 21st century and beyond.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user NWABR


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