Why Are Minorities Underrepresented in STEM?

After 30 years in various teaching, leadership and research positions in education, Irving McPhail joined the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) first as vice president and chief operating officer. Three years ago, McPhail was named president and CEO of NACME. In this role, he oversees the organization’s mission to promote “an engineering workforce that looks like America.” McPhail discusses why minorities remain underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and what efforts NACME promotes to encourage minority students to enter engineering.

What led you to want to champion and encourage more minorities to enter STEM fields, particularly engineering?
I actually began college as a biology major with the intent of becoming an insect behaviorist, so I have had a long interest in science. Although I changed career paths and went on to an academic career in language and literacy education, I remain a STEM enthusiast. I have been blessed to serve as president or chancellor at three academic institutions, and, in each instance, we have maintained strong programs in STEM as centers of excellence. Throughout my academic and professional career, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with many engineers. I remain intrigued by the ability of engineers to imagine, see possibilities and dream about making things better. We must prepare more African-American, American Indian and Latino women and men for careers in engineering so they, too, can change the world. Nothing less is required if the U.S. is to retain its position of leadership in STEM and keep its competitive edge in the global marketplace of ideas and products.

Recently, NACME received the Claire Felbinger Award for Diversity from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc. What does this kind of recognition mean for your organization?
The award provides external validation for the NACME vision, mission and strategy. The award honors the contributions of our corporate, university, community college, K-12 and federal government partners to advancing our vision of “an engineering workforce that looks like America.”

Why do minorities continue to have disproportionately low involvement in STEM fields?
Underrepresented minority youth are less likely than non-Latino white and Asian students to complete a “rigorous” high school curriculum: four years of English; three years of social studies; four years of mathematics including pre-calculus or higher; and three years of science including biology. It is a sad fact that teachers without the appropriate college major or minor are teaching a quarter of all students in mathematics and more than half of all students in the physical sciences in grades 7 through 12. It is an equally sad fact that even well-meaning teachers and counselors are woefully ignorant about the STEM professions and, therefore, unable to guide students in any meaningful way toward such careers.

What specific steps has the council taken to increase the number of minority engineers?
Since its founding in 1974, NACME has become the largest private provider of scholarships in engineering for underrepresented minority students. NACME alumni hold leadership positions in industry, medicine, law, education and government. With funding from corporate and individual donors, we have supported more than 24,000 students with $124 million in scholarships and other support, and currently have more than 1,300 scholars at 50 partner institutions across the country.

What is the biggest challenge minorities face when entering the field of engineering?
Retention to graduation in engineering, computer science and engineering technology continues to be a significant problem, especially for African-American students. Compared with other student groups, African-American students entering engineering programs are less likely to complete their degrees, take longer to complete their degrees and [are less likely to] transfer to and complete an associate degree or certificate program.

How does NACME help individuals overcome the challenge of retention?
The success of NACME scholars stands in sharp contrast to the performance of minority students in engineering education. Our students attain better than 80 percent five-year retention-to-degree metrics and earn average GPAs of 3.3 on a 4.0 scale. This unprecedented level of student success is due in large measure to the availability of scholarship support and to the commitment of our 50 partner universities to sustain learning communities and academic cultures that emphasize student success and high expectations for all students.

What are the benefits of promoting a diverse engineering workforce?
Diversity drives innovation and its absence imperils our designs, our products and, most of all, our creativity. Given that the number of college-age minority students will grow dramatically over the next decade, and that significant gaps in college participation and success exist between them and their nonminority peers, we must find ways to facilitate, rather than deter, their entry into and graduation from STEM disciplines.

Jeffrey Cattel is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.