How to solve tech’s diversity problem? Start with schools

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NBC News — Tamara Battle had always been interested in math and science, and was good at it, too. So when she entered Borough of Manhattan Community College in 1992, she tested well enough to be placed into calculus-based physics. On the first day of class, she realized two things: she was the only black woman in the room, and she had no idea what the professor was talking about.

“It was like, ‘ok, everyone knows what a vector is, right?’” Battle recalled. “I looked around, way out of my league, and realized, ‘Wow, this is going to be a challenge.’”

It’s not that Battle didn’t have the smarts to keep up. It’s that she’d never even taken calculus. She’d also never met a scientist or science teacher who looked like her. Instead of encouraging her to pursue math and tech, Battle’s guidance counselor had informed her she probably wouldn’t graduate from her Brooklyn high school.

Even 20 years later, Battle’s situation isn’t unique. A new analysis of College Board data from Georgia Tech finds that among 30,000 high school students who took the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam in 2013, Hispanic and African-American students accounted for only 8 and 3 percent of test takers, respectively. Among 2013 AP Calculus test takers, only 5.5 percent were black and 13 percent were Hispanic, well below their share of the population. This lack of early engagement in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has a domino effect: In 2011, for example, underrepresented minorities earned9,736, or 12.5 percent, of all engineering bachelor’s degrees, even though they’re nearly 30 percent of the population. Logically, those figures affect who will land some of the highest-paying, most readily available jobs of the future.

For Barbara Ericson, director of outreach at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing and the one who analyzed the data, AP exams are “the canaries in the coalmine,” the best way to track which high school students are engaged in STEM subjects. “The students taking those tests are the ones who are going off to college in these fields,” said Ericson. Female, black, Hispanic, and Native American students are vastly underrepresented in all of them.

Diversity in STEM fields is a national problem, but it varies by region: In states like Texas, California, New York, and Maryland, the statistics are not nearly as dismal as in states like Mississippi and New Mexico, where no African-American students took the AP Computer Science exams. In fact, in Mississippi, only one student took that exam, period. No students took it in Wyoming.

“Computer science in some states has just about disappeared, and that’s not good because it’s one of the fastest growing fields,” said Ericson, noting that Mississippi had 40 people take the test in 2001. Computer science “is a foundational skill for any STEM field. Nowadays, you couldn’t map the human genome without computer science skills.”

Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., a strong advocate in Congress for diversity in STEM fields, says it all comes down to funding elementary and high schools early on, from both the private sector and the National Science Foundation. And that funding, in turn, comes down to legislation—like the amendment Edwards added to the COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which prioritizes under-represented minorities and teachers in high-need schools for fellowship grants. “You need governors and state legislators that actually push for this, or else you’re going to have a problem,” she said.

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