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Fall/Winter 2010 Vol. 10 Number 3

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Tapping a Reservoir of S&T Talent

©Fuse/Getty ImagesThe science and engineering work force is expected to grow faster than any other sector of the U.S. labor market in coming years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but where this tide of employees will come from is an unknown. In recent years international students, particularly those from China and India, have accounted for almost all growth in doctoral degrees awarded in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics. But relying on non-U.S. citizens for this nation’s science and engineering needs is an uncertain path, as many of these students may choose to return to their home countries, says a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine.

Meanwhile, the talents of a huge slice of the U.S. population are going unused. African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans made up 28.5 percent of the American population in 2006 --and are its fastest-growing segment -- but they made up only about 9 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering occupations. Increasing the participation and success of underrepresented minority students would contribute to the nation’s competitive health and security by expanding the talent pool, the report says.

It isn’t a problem of generating student interest; data show that underrepresented minorities aspire to major in science and engineering fields at the same rate as their white and Asian-American peers. But minority students complete degrees in these fields at lower rates and change majors at higher ones. What can be done to keep these students in the science and engineering pipeline?

Students’ persistence is strongly correlated with having financial assistance that meets their needs, the report notes. Providing financial support targeted to minority students in science and engineering fields will enable these students to focus on their studies and boost completion rates. The programs needed would cost approximately $150 million annually, eventually rising to about $600 million per year as more students are included, the report estimates.

But financial support alone is not enough. Research shows that such aid is more successful when coupled with academic support and social integration, the report says, and it’s here that universities and colleges must take the lead. Institutions can take practical steps to increase completion rates, such as identifying “choke points” like lack of course availability that may cause students to fall off these paths, tracking student achievement, and ensuring that courses are structured to properly support students. Institutions also need to create a climate where minority students feel included and self-confident in science and engineering. For example, university leadership should be more aggressive in developing a more diverse pool of faculty and administrators and cultivating role models and leaders for these students.

©Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Different types of institutions may need to use different strategies. For universities with mainly white student bodies, the report says, the best way to retain minority science and engineering majors is to replicate programs that have proved successful on a wider scale, particularly at minority-serving and flagship state universities. Traditionally minority-serving institutions could, with additional support, enhance their recruitment and retention of these students, particularly at a baccalaureate level. And community colleges could help more students in science and engineering make successful transitions to four-year institutions through interventions such as summer bridge programs, mentoring, and efforts to encourage undergraduate research.

As programs at colleges and universities begin to increase the number of minority students who stay in science and engineering, they could generate a kind of snowball effect, the report foresees. More incoming minority students may see their older peers thriving in science and engineering and consider pursuing majors in these fields themselves. --  Sara Frueh & Molly Galvin

Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine (2010, approx. 286 pp.; ISBN 0-309-15968-7; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $40.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by Freeman Hrabowski, president, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, NASA, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Haas Foundation.

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Copyright 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences