Why is STEM Outreach Important for Underrepresented Students?

Beginning around middle school, minorities initially interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) opt out of these fields at disproportionate levels compared to white males (Settles, et al., 2006; Singh, Mishra, & Kim, 1998; Trower & Chait, 2002). Despite recent efforts to increase and sustain diversity in STEM domains, these fields are no more diverse than they were in the last few decades even with rising interest (changetheequation.org).  A staggering 84% of working professionals in STEM fields are white or asian males, and although more women are enrolled in U.S. undergraduate institutions, only 18% earn bachelors degrees in engineering.  This number drops significantly for students of Hispanic and African American descent with only 8% and 4%, respectively, earning bachelors degrees in engineering (National Science Foundation). With the increasing complexity in problems that STEM fields are trying to answer, this lack of diversity presents a serious problem. For example, the best problem solvers are often very similar, therefore a collection of the best problem solvers would perform only a little better than any of them individually while working on a challenging question. On the other hand, a group of random, but intelligent, problem solvers that are more diverse allows them to be collectively better than one single problem solver; diversity trumps ability (Page, The Difference, p 131-175). Homogeneous STEM fields are a prime example of this problem. Diversity in STEM would provide additional tools and insight into these critical questions allowing individuals in these domains to expand and improve upon the initial solution proposed by a more homogeneous STEM group. Thus, forwarding science, specifically STEM, requires individuals from many different backgrounds, demographics, and cultures.