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

September 22, 2009

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."