• April 18, 2014

Minority Students Needed in Math and Science to Combat 'Brain Drain,' Professors Say

Mathematics-education experts on Tuesday urged the federal government to get more involved in recruiting underrepresented minority students to science, math, and engineering majors, saying such efforts are key to increasing the number of Americans working in those fields.

At a briefing session organized by Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the House education committee's higher-education subcommittee, three mathematics and science professors advocated institutional programs that had succeeded in attracting and retaining black, Hispanic, and American-Indian students. They also recommended that Congress increase spending on undergraduate scholarships and for the National Science Foundation, which they said provides data that are "critical" to understanding minority underrepresentation in math and science.

Mr. Hinojosa, calling mathematics "the foundation for so many endeavors," said he would press Congress to consider some of the suggestions, including a proposal to develop mentoring partnerships in math and science between government, businesses, and universities.

"For the first time in history, we are experiencing the brain drain that other countries have experienced," said Carlos Castillo-Chavez, a professor of mathematical biology at Arizona State University. "Reverse immigration" of Chinese and Indian scientists and mathematicians who studied and worked in the United States but are now returning to their home countries will heighten the need for developing talent among U.S. citizens, he said.

Mr. Castillo-Chavez and Sylvia T. Bozeman, a math professor at Spelman College, cited statistics to illustrate some of the lingering problems related to the participation of minority students in math, science, and engineering. Although the percentage of black, Hispanic, and American-Indian students earning bachelor's degrees has grown since 1990, the proportion of such students majoring in math and science has been stagnant since the late 1990s, they said.

Attracting students' interest to fields where they have been traditionally underrepresented is a challenge, Ms. Bozeman said. But she said Spelman College, a historically black women's college, had succeeded in getting students interested in mathematics through a combination of summer programs for high-school students, recruitment by faculty and students in the math department, and frequent advising and mentoring by the math and science faculty.

Mr. Castillo-Chavez cited a math and science honors program at Arizona State University as another example of what works. That high-school summer residential program draws mostly Hispanic and American-Indian students, most of whom pursue science majors after participating.

Getting more money from the federal government to support such efforts is especially important because institutions like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cannot produce enough math and science graduates to meet the country's needs, Mr. Castillo-Chavez said. It will fall to institutions with more-modest resources to close the gaps.

"We have to produce large numbers of extremely well-qualified scientists and mathematicians," he said. "It's not going to take place at the elite universities, but at schools with limited resources."


1. raymond_j_ritchie - September 23, 2009 at 05:46 am

This is really just another incarnation of those silly articles you read from time to time about "upcoming" shortages of mathematicians scientists and engineers and other "useful" people.
The career structures for mathematicians, scientists and engineers are lousy. That is why there are recruitment problems. Most students from comfortable middle-class backgrounds will very quickly and often abusively tell you why they are not interested in maths, science or engineering careers. Lousy pay, no job security and low social status.

I have reached 55 years old, published over 50 papers in international journals and have had 12 years post-doctoral experience in Scotland, USA (twice), Canada and Australia and I have never had a secure job. My immigration application to Canada was rejected on the grounds that my PhD in plant science was "not of value to the Canadian economy" which just about says it all. I have only miserable contract positions that lead nowhere. Based on my own experience I could not with a clear conscience recommend a science career to anyone.

I am a first-generation graduate myself. Unfortunately people from REMs (racial/ethnic minorities) who will be encouraged to go into maths, science and engineering will generally be first-generation graduates. They will believe the recruitment conn and have no parental or sibling advice to help them see the real career prospects in such fields.

If the USA like Australia really needs to recruit more mathematicians, scientists and engineers from their own populations they should provide more attractive career paths. That is not happening and will not happen. Low social status does not help either. When I was a post-doc in the USA I used to joke that the quickest way of never seeing a woman again was to tell them how much you earnt as a post-doc.

2. 12071647 - September 23, 2009 at 07:48 am

I'm a first-generation academic, raised in rural Minnesota. Got my Ph.D. in Physics and transitioned into mathematical evolutionary ecology, and gained a position and tenure at a "major" university. Over the last decade I published something like 40 papers and a couple books, but NSF rejected about a dozen grant proposals. With no research funding for 8 years, I've abandoned mathematical studies. These appeals really offend me: Until there's a commitment of resources at national and disciplinary levels, stop making them.

3. fossil - September 23, 2009 at 08:04 am

It isn't a particularly bright idea to subsume programs to produce more professional scientists and mathematicians under the social engineering of "affirmative action", however worthy the latter might be in itself. The problem isn't a shortage of "minority" scientists and engineers, but rather a shortage of interest in these professions among talented, middle-class kids. The reasons for this deficiency are manifold, but certainly include a culture that has come to think of it as bad form to demand too much hard work of teen-agers, as well as a widespread willingness to accept science teachers at the high school level whose knowledge of their supposed subjects is distressingly shallow. When we add to these the financial lure of other professions in which it is much easier to make much more money much more quickly, and the general disesteem that society shows to scientists, it is not hard to understand why bright kids head straight for schools of business or finance without pausing to wonder whether they might find gratifying careers in molecular biology or differential geometry.

The post-Sputnik era showed what an intelligent and purposeful policy aimed at producing a generation of productive scientists could do. All the obvious elements were in place: a system for screening the student population to bring the truly talented to the fore, serious enrichment programs aimed at high school age students which conferred prestige as well as modest financial benefits, college scholarship programs that took a particular interest in scientific talent, strong financial support for grad students in science and, subsequently, for post-docs, and generous support of universities attempting to build their science programs into true research level departments. Of course, the ethos of the era, which strongly admired scientists, was helpful as well. It's important to note that none of this was diluted by the intrusion of mandates to produce female or minority scientists as such, though women and minorities with serious talent benefited as much as anyone else.

Clearly, much of the attitude that made these policies successful has dissipated. Science is regarded with fear and condescension by educated people who are not quite educated enough. As the books by such as Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood suggest, scientists, per se, are under suspicion as unwitting agents of global destruction or economic collapse. Popular culture still dotes on the image of the scientist as socially-dysfunctional nerd, a la "The Big-Bang Theory". And our schools of education continue to turn out teachers versed in trendy theories of progressive pedagogy but quite deficient in the basic knowledge necessary to teach biology, physics, chemistry, and math to bright students. High school teachers in these subjects really ought to be at the level of A.B.D. students in the sciences and even Ph.D.s no longer interested in active research. Indeed, it would be more productive for many of our better university scientists to teach a highly selected audience of talented high-school kids rather than a so-so body of nominally college-level students. But our pedagogical culture is too rigid at present to allow such innovations, even aside from the various disincentives to high-school scinece teaching careers presented by the existing educational establishment.

None of these problems is addressed by an emphasis on minority recruitment, which, by now, merely sounds like ritualized rhetoric from predictable political sources.

4. esselan - September 23, 2009 at 09:41 am

The federal government already regularly pretends it does this anyway and I doubt its actions will change. Grant funds are distributed through NSF and the other agencies for this very purpose. Of course, the agency makes the award and then later slashes the funding back to be so minimal that the programs cannot be implemented in a meaningful way.

5. 11178276 - September 23, 2009 at 10:11 am

You know, there aren't a lot of kids who are interested in math and science. So -- should we be discouraging or encouraging those who are? The latter methinks. I don't think we're at the point yet where we have too many educated people in this country. But maybe I'm wrong.

6. sgtrock - September 23, 2009 at 10:14 am

Of course there are few minority STEM (science, technology,
engineering and math) faculty members. I can hire a new PhD engineer for
about $75K while newly minted law grads earn $100K and newly minted
MBA's earn even more. Additionally, we flood the country with H1B
visa holders to keep salaries down.

If we want more minority STEM faculty (or more STEM faculty, period),
we must pay competitively for them; we must fund their research; and we
must let them know they are welcome and valued. This is hardly rocket
science. Words alone don't help much ...

7. clementj - September 23, 2009 at 10:47 am

Recruitment is basically an advertising strategy which only works if there is a pool of people who can be influenced by it. The situation is that American students in general, and minorities in particular have low scientific thinking skills. As a result there is a fairly large number that try to go into science and engineering, but can not succeed because they lack the basic thinking skills.

The research of Anton Lawson has come up with some fairly easy test of thinking skills. Shayer, Adey, and Yates at Kings college designed an intervention that can be used in middle school for raising thinking skills. Meanwhile Shayer has documented that in England thinking skills have gone down relative to 30 years ago.

There have been other attempts to improve student thinking. The ADAPT program in U. Nebraska at Lincoln was very successful. But it was dropped because it did not fit into the proper pigeon holes. The same program at another university halved the failure rate in as subsequent calculus course compared to a remedial algebra program. There is a new book coming out about this program.

There is evidence that our educational system is killing student ability to transfer from one subject to another. There are studies that show how near transfer can be improved. But the traditional methods of teaching will require some radical changes to improve the situation. But the good news is that other countries are actually not necessarily achieving better thinking skills. The paper by Bao showed that Chinese students scored much higher on a conceptual physics test, but that they had identical thinking skills at the beginning of an intro. college physics course.

Recruitment is merely a bandaid, and is very unlikely to improve things until there is a concerted attack on the problem of thinking skills and transfer. This can be done, as Anton Lawson has shown that thinking skills can rise dramatically during a properly designed science course. Traditional courses by contrast produce very little increase if any. For example computer science courses produce no increase in the ability to use formal reasoning as measured by the PLT.

8. 12071647 - September 23, 2009 at 10:57 am

Adding to sgtrock: I've been a professor for 15 years at a research I university, and my salary is $70K (my area doesn't match my university's biotech preferences). My morale matches that level. Now, scientists in this situation are supposed to promote an unfunded research area with low salary potential to students? In good conscience, I just can't do that, unless the student REALLY understands the sacrifices involved in academic studies, how their economic needs change with age [can I put my kids through college?}, or the US makes a clear commitment to scientific research. I assert that students now correctly see universities as "white collar tech schools", not centers for learning. Students aren't dumb, and as such, starting salary and difficulty level become the main issues.

9. lynnf - September 23, 2009 at 01:14 pm

Methinks the sources quoted in article and commenters above are dancing around the elephant in the room, which is simply that there are too many people versus too few sustainable, lifetime jobs in STEM (and, frankly, all other fields as well) coupled with lack of societal and political will, particularly in the US of A. The problem goes far beyond whether minority students are diligent or sufficiently prepared for STEM, and whether middle- and upper-class students are too lazy to think and work hard and instead have the entitlement mentality of earning MBAs and JDs followed by lucrative positions (albeit not that lucrative or plentiful these days). It is manifest in the "brain drain" and "reverse immigration" of the Chinese and Indian scientists and mathematicians referred to in the article. They have their H1B visas to work here, yet they are leaving--and why? Because they are going back to their home or other countries to fill STEM jobs offering stability and good wages relative to the cost of living, many of which have been outsourced by American companies interested only in increasing their profits. Not only are the jobs gone from America, but Americans don't exactly have first dibs on them even if they could move abroad. Given few to no jobs, the point of training and university degrees is what? I don't see a solution short of dismantling our capitalistic and materialistic ideology in favor of massive mandatory transfer of wealth, which is political suicide. Paraphrasing Oliver Wendell Holmes, paying taxes is the price for civilization. Sadly, very few Americans are willing to pay the price.

10. 22286593 - September 23, 2009 at 01:20 pm

As someone who has been working in this area, there are a few points I would make:

From the point of view of reducing America's racial inequality, closing the gap between whites/Asian Americans and African Americans/Latinos on STEM is absolutely essential. Everyone acknowledges that these fields are huge and growing part of the labor market and the gap is absolutely immense.

The issue of American students and STEM education is not about lack of interest--it's all about lack of persistance. American students begin their college education with the intent to go into STEM fields, but they quickly leave once they run into academic difficulties. If you have any doubts, examine the enrollment numbers of introductory math and science classes on your campus. We need to figure out how to do a better job of getting students to persist and endure. This will involve great many and complicated things, but it can be done with extra effort and creativity toward African American and Latino students.

Whenever the issue of STEM education is mentioned, American scientists and engineers scream about not being paid enough and foreign competition brought over by the H-1B visa program. First, the amount of pay has little or no correlation with what American students major in. English, history, communications, political science are not attracting the largest numbers of students because these majors result in high pay! Second, the shortage of skilled engineers and scientists (in the hard sciences) in the U.S. is REAL. Of course there will be individual Americans with the appropriate education and work experience who will use their unemployed selves as examples of how this shortage doesn't exist. However, personal stories do not make compelling empirical evidence. EVERY study of labor market outcome of college graduates show that students in STEM fare much, much better than students in humanities and social sciences. If H-1B workers were systematically undermining American workers in these fields, this would not be the case.

Finally, the STEM education issue represents a great opportunity for American higher education and--more broadly--the American society. Especially in this time of economic crisis and uncertainty, doing a better job of educating our students in these fields can both renew the purpose of American higher education and address some of the major structural problems in American society. Taking first generation, working-class students and graduating them in STEM is the most effective way of ensuring their economic success. Indeed, the recent economic crisis showed that while MBA's might fly high in good times, during the bad times, we return to scientists and engineers to put us on a path to more sustainable and real growth. In addition, there is nothing like having to entrust your health to an African American medical doctor to combat racist stereotypes. But, for American universities, we have become very, very good at plucking the lowest hanging fruit and to do the easiest things and then talk very loudly about them. Getting American students to persist and graduate in STEM fields is hard work--doing this for our most socially disadvantaged students is doubly difficult. But, the time for American higher education to do something difficult has come--we should rise to the challenge.

11. princeton67 - September 23, 2009 at 01:42 pm

Once again, as in far too many articles, the term "minority" soon morphs into "blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians". Where are, for example, Asians (many of whose parents do not speak Engish) and Jews (about 1/7 the number of blacks). For that matter, what about Mormons, Amish, recent Indian and middle European immigrants' children?
Ultimately, every person is a minority of one - and a library is nearby.
"socially disadvantaged" as an excuse: let me quote from Judge Denny Chin's biography: "After moving to New York when he was 2, his mother worked as a seamstress and his father as a waiter. A graduate of Princeton University and Fordham Law School, he is a former president of the Asian-American Bar Association of New York."

12. jblair1970 - September 23, 2009 at 02:09 pm

I'm a PhD, have several years teaching and research in the life sciences. I recently interviewed for a position heading the STEM program for a county public school system in Maryland. I went to the interview with more than enough credentials and enthusiasm for the position. I had researched the state STEM initiatives and was excited at the possibility of working at that level of education. I didn't get the job-didn't even get a call from the committee. Considering the U.S. STEM push, efforts to get PhDs into K-12 systems and devote a career to it, it seems like they would have jumped at the chance to hire me. Our stories are many and discouraging. Although I would still love to work in the K-12 STEM programs, 'over cocktails', I don't ever suggest a teaching career or biology major. Among friends, we moan because the salaries and security do not go to careers in life science or academics. Sad testament to our priorities. I live right in the middle of a state county school system that needs to push STEM and the funds are going to supporting industry partners - how much of this will trickle down to the K-12 student level is yet to be seen. And yes, I understand the value of industry partners. That is not the point here, but academics reporting to industry in this scenario, this is backwards. I empathize with the previous writers. And minorities? This school system is very diverse - one reason I applied. Thanks for the thread on this topic.

13. marvchron - September 23, 2009 at 02:50 pm

While underrepresentation in STEM fields by minorities is a problem, the real difficulty is underrepresentation in STEM fields in general. Part of this is due to cultural influences and part is due to marginal secondary school teaching of mathematics. Our educational systems have placed a higher value on making K-12 students feel good about themselves than they have placed on ensuring that K-12 students know something. This has resulted in a collection of high school graduates who state proudly their ineptitude in mathematics and as a result are excluded from STEM employment and the technical aspects of other disciplines. Since this ineptitude presents itself across all disciplines and is not limited to STEM fields, it is an error to think that it is strictly a problem of a particular instructional area. This is a national problem whose negative effects will extend far into the future unless our national disinterest in STEM education is reversed.

14. fossil - September 23, 2009 at 02:59 pm

By today's standards, I would have been considered socioeconomically "disadvantaged" when I was a kid--that is, my family didn't have that much money and we lived in a tiny apartment with no family car until I was in my late teens. For whatever reason, this did not translate into "disadvantage" when it came to pursuing my interest in science. How much money do you need to learn calculus and classical physics?

The key factor in making it possible for me to get a scientific education at the high school level that would be hard to replicate in any public high school nowadays was, oddly enough, the Depression. Economic hard times, together with antisemitism, drove a number of people with training as scientists and engineers into high school teaching, which remained, for some time, a secure and prestigious profession, at least in my community. My teachers, including some Ph.D.'s, were products of this process.

The years between 12 and 16 are really the crucial ones for aspiring scientists; it's then that their ambitions, as well as the crucial cognitive machinery is formed. To be blunt, if one had a really efficient system of math education, you could easily turn a mathematically bright kid into a math Ph.D. by the age of 20 (I had to settle for 23).

For related reasons, if a 19 year old has serious trouble in elementary calc or introductory physics, it's probably to late to salvage the situation to the extent of bringing forth a scientist or engineer who needs to be competent in those areas (though inevitably there will be exceptions). That's why 22286593's pious urging is largely futile, however well-meant. The best, indeed the only reliable, methodology is "catch 'em young and train 'em right".

15. davi2665 - September 23, 2009 at 05:13 pm

The US is losing its edge in producing STEM graduates because there are insufficient opportunities for such graduates to find rewarding careers with decent compensation (of all sorts). It is a lost cause to train more STEM graduates in order to teach more students in STEM programs, ad nauseum. The particular issue of this thread, that of enhancing the number of underrepresented minorities graduating in STEM disciplines, is a moot point. If there is indeed a shortage of such graduates (which I doubt), then who cares where they come from as long as there is an adequate work force to populate those jobs. It is a student's right to choose whatever career path he/she chooses- hence a fairly robust number of underrepresented students choosing law, medicine, business, political science, economics, etc. It would be nice if the social engineers would just leave well enough alone and let individual select whatever motivates them.

One aspect of STEM training that is conspicuous, and is as true today as it was in the 1970s and 1980s is that science and math are highly demanding and rigorous disciplines in which merely presenting opinions is not adequate. Many students with intentions of pursuing STEM disciplines soon find that the demands are to great, and migrate to less stressful majors. The US needs major support of disciplines such as nanotechnology, which can generate new jobs, scientific advances, and wealth, rather than support of banks, hack auto companies, union largesse, and other such boondoggles. Then perhaps it would be worthwhile for students to persist in STEM disciplines and find meaningful careers in them.

16. poppyfish - September 23, 2009 at 09:29 pm

I would like to add a caveat to the idea that persistence is always a desirable response to academic struggles for students in STEM programs. As an advisor, I regularly work with students who have spent three or more years in a futile endeavor to complete a pre-med or Bio major curriculum, retaking class after class and barely staying away from suspension. By the time they realize they need to give up the dream and find another career/major path, their GPA, motivation and self-esteem have been effectively destroyed and no graduate school of any sort is in the cards. Someone, maybe many someones, has convinced them that persistence, even in spite of performance data over a period of years, is always a good thing, that you "can be anything you want if you want it enough" and that enacting plan B means being a quitter. Truly, you gotta know when to fold 'em.

17. unnikrishnan - September 24, 2009 at 07:40 am

The discussion on the topic of under representation in certain fields highlights a fundamental problem that exists at national level with the acronym “STEM.” The all inclusive and politically correct “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” moniker took away the rightful preeminence of Engineering and the original intent of the US Congress to decrease the number of H1-B visa holders, nearly all of them engineers.

It is disingenuous to expect a person who has studied an obscure topic about an equally obscure member of the animal or plant kingdom to be highly sought after even though his or her major has technical compliance with the so called “STEM” title.

The issue with engineers is entirely different. 65% jobs for new college graduates are in engineering but only 5% of the new college graduates are engineers. This statistic is true regardless of the number of jobs available thus validating the preeminent role of the engineering disciplines even during difficult economic times. Advances in computers, communications, robotics, transportation, information technology and assistive technology have been the economic engines that sustained the predominance of US in the world market. They were all the work products of engineers.

The engineering needs of the nation currently are met by the importing of qualified engineers through the H1-B visa process. This is primarily due to the lack of production of qualified engineering graduates in the US to meet industry demands.

It is in this context one needs to evaluate a second order problem of lack of participation by many groups of our society. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that students from these groups are encouraged to pursue difficult majors such as engineering so that they can participate in the creation of wealth and prosperity. This is not just a social justice issue; the nation needs them just to maintain the technical workforce in this country.

It is time that the US Congress and the agencies such as the NSF abandon the use of the title “STEM” and shift their focus just to Engineering.

18. allens - September 26, 2009 at 10:45 am

I suggest that what's really needed is for the H1B visas to become green cards. As it is, H1B visas trap people with a particular employer, who then has entirely too much leverage. We moreover have this insanity of educating Chinese, Indian, etc students only if the INS (now USCIS) thinks that they WON'T stay here - when we should (especially in the case of China, with its authoritarian government) really be trying to make sure they don't go back and work for our competition!

In terms of the above on engineers being the ones needed... I think you're concentrating too much on the terms. There's a lot of overlap between engineering and technology, and between technology and science (and, given that higher-level computer science, which is technology and science, is mostly math, with math). My wife is a biochemist working for a drug company; she's in her first year there, and already makes as much as first-year engineers with - like her - "only" a BS at the same company.

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