Last month, I attended a White House event honoring Tech Inclusion Champions of Change. Valerie B. Jarrett, a Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, said: “This is about our young people. But it’s also about the future of our country. President Obama has said that engaging, and exciting young people in STEM is incredibly important to the future of our nation.” STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
The U.S. ranks 25th in math and 17th in science among the 65 countries participating in PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. Non-Hispanic whites make up 73 percent of the STEM workforce. Blacks and Hispanics, who represent 28 percent of the U.S. population, make up only seven percent of STEM workers. The Department of Commerce reports that increasing the number of STEM workers among underrepresented minorities and girls will help ensure America’s continued global competitiveness.
Citizen Schools Founder and CEO Eric Schwarz led a workshop on US2020, a national initiative to mobilize one million STEM professionals to provide 20 hours of high-quality mentoring. Millions of kids will be exposed to the possibilities. As Schwarz was outlining US2020’s five-part strategy, I got an aha moment: We can do this.
During World War II, there was a shortage of white male workers. Black workers were excluded from all but menial jobs. From Madison Avenue to Hollywood, it was all hands on deck to give factory jobs a makeover. Popular culture was used to encourage women to pursue “man-size” jobs.
One of the most popular versions of “Rosie the Riveter” was recorded by a black quartet, the Four Vagabonds.
The mobilization strategy worked. White women poured into factories and produced munitions and war supplies. The wartime workforce demographics opened up opportunities for black women.
In today’s workforce, the iconic Rosie the Riveter would be classified a STEM worker. Then as now, the U.S. is facing a crisis. This time, the shifting demographics and minority underrepresentation in STEM fields threaten our economic growth.
According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only four percent of African American 12th graders were proficient in science. By contrast, 27 percent of white seniors and 36 percent of Asian American seniors performed at or above the proficient level. Hip hop icon GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan is determined to fix that.
GZA teamed up with Columbia Teachers College professor Christopher Emdin and the website Rap Genius to use hip hop to teach science. They created a competition, Science Genius BATTLES (Bringing Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science), that required students to write science-based raps. At the launch of the pilot project, GZA said: “I am here not as a teacher, nor expert, nor genius. But I’m here as a science enthusiast who wants to inspire New York City public high school students to get excited about biology, chemistry and physics.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know current approaches to STEM education are not working. A report by the Bayer Corporation found that one of the leading causes of minority underrepresentation is the prevalence of stereotypes that say STEM isn’t for minorities. To fix the crisis, we must go back to the future. Students must be exposed to successful professionals who can flip the script.
Role models like Lonnie Johnson, a Tuskegee engineer who invented the Super Soaker water gun, and Lisette Titre, a game developer who has contributed to several best-selling video games. Brittney Exline is the nation’s youngest African American engineer. The 2011 University of Pennsylvania graduate is a former mentor at West Philadelphia High School. STEM evangelist will.i.am’s song, “Reach for the Stars,” was transmitted to Earth from Mars, a NASA first.
These innovators are bringing attention to the crisis. At the same time, they are giving STEM a much-needed makeover.