Filling the STEM gap

Filling the STEM gap

At Microsoft's School of the Future in Philadelphia, students learn technology skills. (Source: Microsoft's School of the Future)

Thanks in part to our technology-dependent lives and our country’s economic woes, the demand for graduates with an understanding of math, science, and engineering is exploding.

Someone has to create all those lightening-fast Web applications, or arbitrate Wall Street’s complex investment structures.

No longer the playground of the ubernerdy, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is tres chic. In a more modern twist, today’s technology and engineering aficionados are responsible for building social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and math experts are working as CFOs at Fortune 1000 companies.

There’s just one problem: African American and female students aren’t entering the educational fields necessary to fill the void.

“The numbers are really low,” said Jordan Lloyd Bookey, global diversity and talent inclusions manager at Google who also heads the company’s STEM kindergarten-12th grade programs. “One of the major factors is when they look around the classroom, they don’t see too many people who look like them.”

According to data from the Science and Engineering Indicators, African Americans received just 8.8% of the bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields in 2005. In comparison, white students made up 67% of the STEM bachelor’s granted.

The numbers for girls aren’t much to brag about either. Females earn 28% of computer science degrees, 20% of engineering degrees, and 40% of mathematics degrees.

Black and Latino students at four-year colleges enter with the same level of commitment to pursue STEM fields. They’re just not as well equipped. Many come from lower-income areas and attend high schools that don’t offer higher-level math and science courses, which are essential for students to succeed at the university level and beyond.

By their junior year, most have switched majors, according to a study by the American Council on Education. The theory about why women shy away from STEM fields varies, but the general consensus is that at some point, gender politics got in the way and they believed math wasn’t their strong suit.

Bookey and a group of African American employees at Google felt compelled to establish recruitment programs aimed at female and minority high school and college students. They call themselves the Black Googlers Network, and their goal is to create a pipeline of co-eds interested in science and technology.

The group does outreach at historically black colleges and universities, takes part in Google’s yearly Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, and holds functions alongside the National Association of Black MBAs to reverse the statistics and “demystify what the industry is all about,” says Stacy Brown-Philpot, Google’s director of consumer operations and head of the BGN.

“At Google, we’re idea-driven,” Brown-Philpot added. “The best ones sometimes happen from the bottom up.”

If the job boards are any indication, it’s evident that the U.S. is quickly becoming a STEM-based economy.