Diversity in STEM Fields Is a Social Justice Issue, Study Finds

The federal government has emphasized that enrolling more Black and other minority students in STEM fields is important for national security and the economic well-being of our society. But a new study by Lorenzo DuBois Baber, an assistant professor of education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois, finds that efforts to increase the number of Black and other minority students in STEM fields will not reach their full potential until educators and national policymakers focus on ensuring equal opportunity rather than economic necessity.

Dr. Baber says that “in the 1950s when Sputnik happened, and the federal government made the decision to invest more in research and utilizing universities, our higher education structure was very segregated. Students of color weren’t able to participate in the development of STEM fields. The economic rationale is important, and obviously brings more people to the table, but we also need to recognize that increasing diversity in STEM is a social justice issue. We need to think about remedying past discrimination in STEM fields along with the economic rationale.”

Dr. Baber interviewed administrators at the top research universities in the United States. He found that they were focused on increasing the numbers of Black and other minority students in STEM fields. But Professor Baber maintains that while amassing critical numbers of underrepresented students is important, achieving enrollment targets does little to improve the problems in the campus culture that affect students and contribute to their failure to complete degree programs. Dr. Baber maintains that there are complex challenges of changing systemic inequalities and marginalizing attitudes at research universities.

In his research, Dr. Baber “found little evidence of a consistent, longitudinal investment in equity initiatives that addressed structural barriers, such as department climate and/or faculty awareness of diversity issues in STEM education.”

Dr. Baber holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He earned a Ph.D. in higher education and sociology from Pennsylvania State University.

The paper, “Considering the Interest-Convergence Dilemma in STEM Education,” was published in The Review of Higher Education. It may be accessed here.

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