We pride ourselves on being a nation of diversity. But when it comes to diversifying our workforce in high-tech fields of tomorrow, well, let's just say we still have a lot of work to do.
Consequently, as we attempt to motivate more young students into the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), it is paramount that we also increase our efforts to include more women and underrepresented minorities in these fields.
To put it succinctly, if America is to retain its role as a global leader in technology, it is essential that we tap the imagination and intellectual contributions of women, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans -- groups that have traditionally been poorly represented in STEM professions.
Latest figures from the National Science Foundation's top 100 science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments at U.S. universities, show that while the number of women and underrepresented minorities receiving bachelor's degrees in these fields rose during the years 2002 through 2007, the number of doctorate degrees received by the same groups did not nearly increase at the same rate. Additionally, the number of faculty positions held by women and minorities barely increased at all during the same five-year period.
The importance of adequate representation of minorities and women in STEM to American competitiveness in technology is borne out in a seminal study conducted recently by the Bayer Corporation in which leading Fortune 1000 executives in STEM were surveyed.
In the study, almost 55 percent of the Fortune executives say their companies are experiencing a shortage of STEM talent, and nearly nine in 10 (89 percent) agreed that attracting more talented minorities and women into STEM fields would be a major step in solving this critical need. In addition, the executives said, increasing diversity in STEM workforces would also enhance their innovation and the ability to be more competitive in the global marketplace.
Mae Jemison, M.D., the first African American woman to travel into outer space (and who earned her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering before entering medical school), agrees: "Part of what makes America great is that we have people from every culture and race on earth as our citizens," she says. "We need to do a better job of using this to our advantage. We must build a robust STEM pipeline that includes everyone and equally values their ideas, creativity and potential."
How do we go about doing this? Jemison and other experts agree that more effort needs to be made in reaching all students -- as early as elementary school -- with high-quality, hands-on, inquiry-based science education that also gives young learners personal contact with role models in science, engineering and technology.
As Richard Tapia, professor of engineering at Rice University, says, we need to expose children, including girls and minorities, to targeted disciplines in technology at an early age when their curiosity and imagination are prime, and he adds, this pipeline continuum needs to continue through high school and beyond.
This is the idea behind the upcoming inaugural USA Science and Engineering Festival -- the nation's first major celebration of science and technology of its kind -- as it works with K-12 schools and teachers to give kids exciting hands-on interaction and exposure with renowned scientists and engineers. The event takes place across the country this October 10-24, culminating in a massive Expo on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Oct 23-24.
The Festival, which builds upon the success and lessons learned from our pilot Science Festival held last year in San Diego, is not only designed to motivate and invigorate the next generation of young innovators about science and engineering, it is also intended to expand the public's appreciation and understanding of science and technology.
The event brings together a wide array of world-class scientists, engineers, biotech entrepreneurs and Nobel Laureates with students, teachers, parents and communities, and involves more than 750 leading science and engineering organizations; more than 1,500 hands-on Expo activities, 75 stage shows, and much more -- all expected to attract more than half a million visitors and participants, nationwide.
Throughout the Festival, more than 40 satellite events held in a wide variety of locations across the nation, including Tuscon, Ariz.; Coning, N.Y.; Columbia, S.C.; Austin, Texas; Clifton, N.J.; and Berkeley, Calif., will link the event in national celebration.
But most important, the Festival will bring kids face to face with male and female role models in science and engineering from various ethnic backgrounds for a personal look at how these professionals are truly making a difference!
For instance, through the Festival's Nifty Fifty Program school presentations, students will get the chance to meet and hear such renowned scientists and engineers as:
What's more the Festival's Expo, with its wide array of exciting exhibits and stage presentations (including those pertaining to women in science and engineering), is designed to motivate and pique the curiosity of female and minority K-12 students.
These include such interactive presentations as:
Other participating Festival organizations and societies with an emphasis on STEM preparation and outreach to ethnic and female students are:
National Society of Black Physicists; Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers; CSTEM Teacher and Student Support Services, Inc.; Association for Women in Science; Graduate Women in Science; Let's Go Boys & Girls Program, Great Minds in STEM; Afterschool Alliance; Society of Women Engineers; Girls Inc.; Institute for Women's Health Research at Northwestern University; Air Force Association; Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America; Association for Women in Mathematics; National Girls Collaborative Project; Idaho National Laboratory, and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The whole idea is to counter those stereotypes that kids begin to develop about science at an early age, such as false notions that science is dull, nerdy and only for white guys. That's why it is important for students to meet and interact with a variety of scientists, people from various backgrounds and different ages and ethnicities, as well as people who look like them and that they can identify with.
Research shows that exposure to such encounters not only serve to motivate young minorities in STEM, also inspires girls as well. Astronaut Sally Ride, who is active in spearheading and supporting science initiatives that invigorate female students in STEM, says that although studies indicate that as many girls as boys proclaim an interest in science at fourth grade, by fifth, sixth or seventh grade both boys and girls tend to begin to lose interest in the subject.
"But we lose more girls than boys at that time," says Ride. "It's not because of aptitude or interest," she explains. "In large part, it's because at that age students start to internalize the messages that our society is sending," messages that imply that science is mostly for boys and not for girls.
We can ill afford to leave such messages unchallenged in the future.
Says Shirley Ann Jackson, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, of the mission ahead: "We need to find new approaches to excite, invite and prepare those who have been left standing outside the door of the technical world... There is no better time for us to take this on."
We agree. The time is now. Join us this fall as we endeavor to do our part to meet this challenge through the USA Science & Engineering Festival! Check it out at www.usasciencefestival.com.
Follow Larry Bock on Twitter: www.twitter.com/usasciencefest