Shirley Malcom "Supporting STE Careers from Cradle to Grave"

An Interview with the Head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs of AAAS
bridges vol. 16, December 2007 / Feature Article

by Juliet M. Beverly

With legislation such as the America COMPETES Act, US policy makers aim to strengthen educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from elementary through graduate school. This and other policy measures will help to generate the next generation of the well-educated STE workforce needed to ensure the future leadership of the United States in developing and implementing new technologies.

However, this also brings to mind an unfortunate past mistake: For many years a vast pool of excellent human resources for these fields wasn't given enough attention by many policy makers, academia, and R&D institutions - the overlooked potential was women and minorities in science and technology.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2006, a report issued annually by the National Science Foundation, shows that although the number of women and minorities enrolling in graduate schools and receiving science and engineering degrees (bachelor's or higher) increased, with women outnumbering men in S&T bachelor's degrees in 2001 (see fig. 1 /, the representation of women, Blacks, and Hispanics in science and engineering (S&E) occupations is still less than their proportion of the population.

This disproportion also carries into academia. Underrepresented minorities (Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives) are a small percentage of the S&E doctorate holders employed in academia, making up 8 percent of both total academic employment and full-time faculty in 2003 (insert fig. 2 / Although there has been an increase in the number of women and underrepresented minority degree holders employed in S&E, they are mostly concentrated in the social sciences rather than physical sciences. Why? Arguments by policy makers, faculty, and secondary teachers have attributed these numbers to the public image of STEM, but the most important factor may be the lack of awareness about STEM possibilities prior to post-secondary education.

Dr. Shirley Malcom

Dr. Shirley Malcom, the head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), engages with these issues. The Education and Human Resources Programs Directorate includes AAAS programs in education and activities for women and minority groups, as well as public understanding of science and technology. Malcom received her doctorate in ecology from Pennsylvania State University and a master's degree in zoology from the University of Washington. It is her experience and advocacy for science and education that led to her 2003 receipt of the Public Welfare Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, the highest award given by the Academy. Malcom talked with bridges about women and minorities in STEM and her insight into the reasons that underlie the disparity.

bridges:  What changes have you seen with regards to the presence of women and minorities in STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics) fields since your university days, and how do you apply your past experiences to your work today?

Malcom: The number of women and minorities in STEM has increased significantly since I was at the university. Today my own field of biology is at parity in terms of numbers of women. Their presence in other areas such as physics, computer science, and engineering, remains below parity, but there has been growth. The numbers of underrepresented minorities, especially - Blacks and Latinos, for example - remain far below parity even as their proportion in the school-age population increases. From my own experience, I know that subject matter competence is a necessary part of retaining students in STEM, but it is not sufficient: An environment of mentoring, support, respect, and high expectations is also needed. Departmental climate matters a lot.

bridges:  What is and is not working in STEM field recruitment tactics for women and minorities today? How would you explain the low numbers of minorities and women?

Malcom: What is working? For women, making sure that girls and young women take the right levels of mathematics and science in K-12 is critical, as is career counseling. Both groups need to know what they can do, as a life's work, with study in these fields. What differences can they  make? What opportunities are available? What kind of life does work in STEM allow a person to have? We need more proactive efforts. The current lower numbers relate to a number of complex factors that are different for each group. Certainly the low numbers themselves are barriers - fewer role models translate into less opportunity to "try out" the idea of science careers. And if students have taken the wrong courses (or have not had them available) even interest may not be enough to overcome this deficit.

bridges:  What role does the public perception of STEM play in this?

Malcom:  STEM people have been portrayed in the media as being boring, weird, or diabolical, certainly nothing that one might wish to emulate. More recently,  interesting STEM characters are being portrayed, for example, the forensic scientist on CSI or the mathematicians on NUMB3RS. In some communities there is a weak public perception of STEM, which may make it hard to gain family and community support for a career choice in STEM. Work from Public Agenda suggests that neither students nor their parents have a positive orientation toward STEM - parents, for example, believe that their children have enough education in STEM to manage living and working in the 21st century, despite evidence to the contrary.     

bridges:  In your opinion, what impact will the "graying of science" have on the overall intake of minorities and women into STEM fields?

Malcom:  It is my hope that a public awareness that the current STEM professional community is marching toward retirement will lead to a realization that we must push for talent among the parts of the population whose numbers were growing. But it is not clear whether that is the case - to date, strategies have involved "importing" talent rather than turning to women and minorities as a homegrown source.

bridges:  There has been much back-and-forth dialogue about whether interest in science education is fostered in K-12 or if it begins when students enter higher education. At what educational level does nurturing of scientific interest need to begin, in order to have a pool of young adults to enter STEM?

Malcom:  We must nurture interest in science from the day children are born and avoid behaviors that turn them off to STEM. As young children, they exhibit behaviors that are like scientists, as they explore and seek to make sense of their worlds. There is a wonderful book, The Scientist in the Crib, which points out some of these aspects. But we can kill interest at any level!

bridges:  What special efforts would you suggest to make sure that women and minorities are presented with the opportunity to become interested in STEM? What programs/projects offered by the AAAS specifically address these issues?

Malcom:  Better information on careers is central, as is keeping students in the right courses to ensure that their opportunities to pursue those careers remain intact. AAAS has an active suite of programs to inform people about careers in STEM. We have a Center on Careers in S&T that helps all of us across the AAAS and SCIENCE coordinate and complement our disparate attempts to support careers from cradle to grave. Our Science Careers Web site provides information as well as inspiration, through stories of people who have chosen STEM careers or used STEM training to pursue other things.

bridges:  Shouldn't there also be a parallel effort to train educators who will be equipped with the skills and teaching ability to make sure that:
a)    students are well prepared to pursue STEM careers, and
b)    students receive mentorship and positive reinforcement to stay interested in STEM?

Malcom:  Building a strong teaching corps who can do all these things remains a major challenge, as does providing information to the current group of teachers. But so much education policy today is being driven by testing requirements under the "No Child Left Behind" legislation that de-emphasizes science.  In addition, teachers need authentic science experiences themselves. It is difficult to prepare students well to pursue STEM careers if one does not have experiences that can undergird this.

bridges:  Questions have been raised as to whether the proportion of women and minority STEM faculty correlates with the proportion of women and minority STEM students. What influence does faculty composition have and how important is it to recruitment?  

Malcom:  Most of us who pursued graduate degrees in STEM 30 or more years ago did so under white male mentors who were committed to our success. But it is hard to become what you have never seen. More diverse faculty environments yield more diverse student populations, especially in fields where the underrepresentation is most severe. If we look at the experiences, for example, of women's colleges and minority-serving institutions (e.g., Historically Black Colleges and Universities) we can see their success in supporting, educating, and nurturing students.

bridges:  Many US universities and R&D institutions recruit foreign brainpower to ensure their competitiveness and diversity. What is your opinion of this approach as a cure for the lack of diversity and lagging competitiveness?  

Malcom:  We should welcome talent from wherever. But we should not use this strategy instead of developing efforts to "grow our own." In some cases (developing countries, for example) we must consider the ethics of draining away needed talent from countries that have invested in educating people, and where those individuals are needed to support their countries' development. Relying on foreign sources of talent to solve domestic talent challenges is not a good long-term policy strategy.  

:  Finally, what should legislators do? Measures such as the America COMPETES Act now allocate federal money to programs that aim at increasing and improving STEM education. Is opening the government's wallet enough to fix the issue, or does the problem lie somewhere outside of the realm of financing?
Malcom:  Money is a problem, but it is not the only problem. The fragmented nature of our primary and secondary education makes it difficult to address the issues in a systemic way. But this is what is needed.  In the long run, presenting STEM as areas with exciting opportunities is as good a place to start as any. This is fine as long as we do not fool ourselves into thinking that our job is done once we address this part of the system.



The author, Juliet M. Beverly, has been a member of the bridges editorial team since January 2007.