Dr. Kamau Bobb Talks Research and Challenges in STEM Education

BlackEnterprise.com: How has your work impacted outcomes for your clients, both nationally and internationally?

Dr. Kamau Bobb: As a program officer at the National Science Foundation, my role is to help facilitate the direction of scholarly research. As a whole, the foundation is committed to improving student achievement in STEM education for the United States. My focus is on developing an equitable landscape for rigorous, high-quality CS education. One of my primary interests is merging the research community that focuses on education broadly with the CS education community.

The CS education community is comprised mostly of university faculty in computer science. Their interests in diversity and broadening participation are leading them to increase focus on issues of identity, stereotype threats, and the negative, quiet forces that result in students of color and women not persisting in CS. However, the broader education research community studies that work more directly. It focuses on the factors that contribute to both the success and failure of our most vulnerable student populations.

Merging the collective research power of these two communities is a goal of mine, yet the impact of my effort remains to be seen. The power and sincerity of these two research communities leaves me fully optimistic that they will produce useful insights with and for our young people while working together.

What are the most significant challenges facing STEM education and the STEM workforce?

The most significant challenge facing STEM education and the workforce is the capacity of the U.S. educational system to produce interested and qualified participants in the STEM enterprise. Here is where the racial and socio-economic challenges facing the nation are most glaring.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics National Report Card, there are some damning realities that significantly challenge STEM education and the STEM workforce. In 2015, only 33% of all eighth grade students in the U.S. were proficient or better in mathematics. Only 13% of black eighth graders and 19% of Hispanic eighth graders were proficient or better in mathematics, which is in contrast to 43% of white students and 61% of Asian students. For students who live in poverty and qualify for the National School Lunch Program, only 18% were proficient in eighth grade mathematics.

According to the College Board, only 16% of black students are college or career ready by the time they take the SAT in eleventh grade. For Hispanic students, 23% are ready. For Asian and white students, 61% and 53%, respectively, are ready for higher education or to take on meaningful work. This landscape is a problem.

This data is certainly grim and outlines a bimodal education system that simply does not work for many students of color and students who live in poverty. Looking at it another way, if we are to believe the College Board, approximately 84% of black young people who have spent 12 years in school are not ready for college and are certainly not ready for a career in a STEM field. This reality is nothing new, yet it remains the primary challenge facing STEM education and the workforce in the United States.

STEM fields are not immune to the national challenges that exist at the intersection of race and class. The weight of the challenges heaped upon students of color who are also poor is unfathomable. Lifting that weight off the backs of our young people is the most pressing responsibility and significant challenge facing STEM educators, policy advocates, the tech sector, and the nation itself.

Karima Mariama-Arthur is Founder and CEO of  WordSmithRapport, a boutique consulting firm specializing in professional development. Follow her on Twitter @WSRapport.