Member Login Menu

Paradigm Shift Proposed for ‘Leaky’ STEM Pipeline

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

Researchers have proposed four institutional developments to encourage underrepresented groups of students to pursue doctorates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

July 8, 2014—The career prognosis for students of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) may be better now than at any point in recent history. According to an initiative launched by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2012, the number of occupations requiring at least a background in STEM will increase from 5.0 percent to 5.3 percent between 2008 and 2018, requiring an influx of one million new STEM-educated workers. And reports from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce support this trend, noting that because of the analytic foundation offered by STEM degrees, the career prospects of STEM graduates extend even beyond traditional STEM fields.
featured image
A new report from Brown University recommends four steps that universities should take to help traditionally underrepresented STEM students achieve doctoral degrees. Tetra Images/AP Images

But despite the increasing career prospects for STEM-trained students, recent studies indicate that there is a disconnect between the growing number of jobs in the United States that require STEM skills and students' interest in pursuing STEM fields of study. And now researchers at Brown University have noticed another disturbing trend: The percentage of traditionally underrepresented minority students studying STEM at the doctoral level lags far behind that of their peers, serving to significantly limit those students' career potentials.

To explore this issue, the researchers focused on a choke point in what they called the "leaky" STEM pipeline: the point at which students transition from graduate study to doctoral work in STEM fields. The resulting paper, "Reimagining the Pipeline: Advancing STEM Diversity, Persistence, and Success," published in BioScience (Oxford University Press, 2014) offers four institutional changes that the researchers believe would encourage traditionally underrepresented students to pursue doctoral-level work.

The paper divides students into two groups: underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities (URMs) and non-URMs. For the purposes of this study, URMs include African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. The researchers found that between 2000 and 2010, while a comparable percentage of URM and non-URM students begin to study STEM fields as undergraduates—34.8 percent and 37.6 percent, respectively—by the time the students finished their bachelor's degrees and decided on their next career move, the percentages had shifted. While 38.1 percent of the doctorates awarded to URMs are in STEM fields, 51.3 percent of the non-URM doctorates are awarded in STEM fields.

"We undertook this study because we noticed, and the literature shows—mainly the non-STEM literature—that after decades of what appears to have been best efforts, little improvement has been seen in increases of URMs in STEM professions," said Andrew G. Campbell, Ph.D., an associate professor of medical science and the corresponding author on the paper, who wrote in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online. Stacy-Ann A. Allen-Ramdial, Ph.D., completed her doctoral work at Brown and is the lead author of the paper.

When the record of encouraging URMs to move into STEM professions was examined closely, "it seemed as though we are were stuck in a causal loop," Campbell noted. "We have certainly been doing many of the right things, but these by themselves have not been enough."

To create a new framework at the university level that encourages URMs to complete doctoral work in STEM subjects, the authors recommend that four institutional changes be implemented. The first is aligning an institution's on-campus culture—its beliefs and intentions—with its climate, which Campbell defines as "the practiced behavior, attitudes, and intentions that actually exist." The second recommendation is to further develop interinstitutional partnerships among faculty that will result in curricula that will enable those seeking higher degrees to do so without facing knowledge gaps. The remaining suggestions are attaining and sustaining a critical mass of URM students on campuses, and achieving, rewarding, and maximizing faculty work related to diversity issues.

"The four points selected for inclusion in the paper really were highlighted because they represented the things that seem to be present and utilized regularly at highly resourced institutions—and were not available or utilized at smaller, less-resourced, and minority-serving institutions," Campbell explained. By highly resourced, the report refers to universities classified by the Carnegie Foundationas 'very high research'-intensive institutions, "including those with sizable endowments," Campbell noted. "Under-resourced institutions and/or minority-serving include small undergraduate colleges serving disadvantaged students with high financial needs, and the historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges," he explained.

Together, the four recommended developments will help reimagine a portion of the STEM pipeline as one that is focused more closely on the training needs of URM graduate students and their sense of belonging within an institution. "The reimagined pipeline we present is meant to invoke a paradigm shift in how we think nationally about the STEM pipeline, and how changing that thought benefits how we address the challenge of achieving diversity in the fields," said Campbell.

Regarding their first suggested institutional change—a closer alignment of the culture and climate on campuses—the authors currently see a separation of theory and practice. "Misalignment of the two is not always willful—but it happens," Campbell said. An example occurs when universities do a good job of recruiting URMs as part of their culture of diversity, but do not follow through to create a climate favorable to diverse students—for instance, by not having enough URM faculty or hosting enough URM speakers on campus. "The recruited URMs don't always feel that they belong because they don't see faculty of color who could serve as examples representing the endpoints of their aspirations," he noted.

The second development that the authors recommend involves enhanced interinstitutional partnerships. While this includes research projects developed jointly by faculty from multiple types of institutions, the authors also suggest that colleges that do not offer doctoral degrees work to improve their curriculum to match the needs of graduate programs at the more highly ranked research institutions. This would help ensure that undergraduate students do not have unexpected academic gaps that cause setbacks during their graduate school years. Rather than requiring any formal agreements between non-Ph.D.- and Ph.D.-granting institutions, Campbell sees this type of mapping as an informal agreement—much as certain highly ranked private high schools have become feeder schools for Ivy League universities, or powerhouse high schools with outstanding sports programs have become feeder schools for certain university sports programs.

Fulfilling the third recommendation—attaining and sustaining a critical mass of URM students on university campuses—will counteract the isolation that many students feel when they do not have enough peers to whom they can relate. "Although non-URM peers can serve as excellent mentors and role models for URM trainees, they alone are not sufficient to legitimize the early professional and social identities that are crucial to an early adjustment to new training environments," the authors write in the paper.

The fourth development that the authors would like to see is maximizing and rewarding faculty involvement in diversity in a manner that is assessed for tenure and promotion—similar to research and teaching activities. Some faculty members receive federal grant funding specifically to train underrepresented and disadvantaged students, according to Campbell. Such faculty often publish scholarly articles based on this training, he noted. "This type of work should be valued as much as other scholarly activities when promotion and merit-based decisions are made," he said.

With the accomplishment of these four institutional developments, which affect both students and faculty, the authors believe there will be an increase in the number of URMs who decide to make the commitment to doctoral studies. And increasing those numbers would be beneficial for future research and development across all STEM fields.

"Diverse perspectives on any problems come from a diversity of people who can inform practice and solve problems in ways that a nondiverse perspective cannot," Campbell said. "New [and] different people …who are brought into the fields bring new thought, new ways of looking at problems, new practices, and are more willing to challenge dogma—all of which help to advance the field," he noted.


Read Civil Engineering magazine on your smart device: download our apps.

app store play store