Capitol Thoughts
Capitol Thoughts Archive

STEMming the Tide by Janaye Ingram

May 25, 2012

There’s a commercial that Best Buy has been running that agitates me every time I see it.  In the commercial, there are several technology innovators – the man who created the camera phone, the man who created text-to-speech synthesis, the man who created video-sharing, the guys who created Shazam (a mobile phone music identification service), the man who created mobile credit card processing, the guy who created Instagram, the guy who created the first text message, and the men who created the popular game “Words With Friends”.  Anyone notice a trend?  Anyone notice something missing?  Not one woman was in the ad aside from the actress they had portraying the Best Buy staff member.  The other thing that has bothered me visually is that I didn’t see one black face (not even that of the female actress).  Okay, so there were a few black faces way in the background, but not one black person or woman featured as a technology innovator.  As a woman of color, the commercial has rubbed me the wrong way and I began asking myself if this is the reality – aren’t there any females or blacks who are technology inventors or is it just that they and their products aren’t well known or widely consumed?

As we move toward the 2012 elections, more people are asking what the black agenda should be, not only as it relates to who is elected as President, but also who will be in both chambers of Congress and who will sit in many state legislatures or Governorships, to even who will be in some city councils or Mayoral seats.  So many issues are affected by who wins the elections on national, state, and local levels based on the policies that the lawmakers will support.  Two critical issues in my mind are education and the economy.  As it pertains to education, we have not found solutions to the question of what is the best way to prepare our students for college and career.  In an article published in the, a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education revealed more than 60% of high school students leave without advanced reading or writing skills needed in college and career. Data from the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparison, American students ranked 21st out of 30 in science literacy among students from developed countries and 25th out of 30th in math literacy.  It seems that we have prepared students for testing and taught them tricks that help them figure out equations, but not understand how to solve problems in real life.

Just yesterday, I attended a discussion on Capitol Hill by the nonprofit Global WIN about STEM education.  The moderator of the panel, Aleta Margolis from the Center for Inspired Teaching told a story about when she was a teacher and she was teaching students fractions.  After a quiz, it seemed the students had grasped the concept.  As she told it, she “taught them all the tricks” to multiply, divide, add, and subtract fractions.  But when they had a pizza party shortly thereafter, she told each of the students they could have 1/3rd of 1/4th of the pie and the students were perplexed.  They didn’t understand the concept in real life terms. Another poignant example that Ms. Margolis focused on was the acceptance that “math isn’t for everyone.”  By allowing ourselves to subscribe to the belief that “math just isn’t my thing” we make it acceptable for students to not excel in the subject. Science, computer technology, and engineering are the same thing.  As Ms. Margolis said, “imagine if we said the same thing about reading.”

As it relates to the economy, Dr. Elizabeth Grossman, a Technology Policy Strategist for Microsoft says the computing industry will have 1.4 million jobs in the year 2020, but the US labor force will only be able to fill about 30% of the open positions.  That’s just one industry.  Imagine how many other positions will exist in STEM fields that will be left vacant as our students are void of the relevant knowledge.  A second report by the Alliance for Excellent Education states, “The U.S, economy can only thrive…if the whole population is equipped to succeed in the modern workplace.”  As we enter a more digital world, the argument can be made that STEM fields are a large part of that.  Innovation in these areas can lead to the next vaccine or technological advance that can help make life easier.  We know where the jobs of the future will be, but how are we preparing our students to fill these jobs?

Minority and women representation is slowly lagging in the field.  In the September 2008 Bayer Facts of Science Education Survey XII, it showed there was a decline in women and minorities in STEM fields over the years.  Specifically, an April 2012 article by US News and World Report states, “minority students are destined to make up only about 15% of the STEM bachelor graduates,” without legislative action to provide opportunities and role models within the field.  A report from Alliance for Excellent Education found that there was a link between student interest in STEM fields and the presence of technology in the classroom to aid in their education.  But in so many inner-city public schools, technology is largely absent. Conversely, in some suburban and charter schools, technology is a large part of a student’s overall education.  STEM field development is so critical that President Obama has created the “Educate to Innovate” campaign to address student engagement in the STEM fields.  But the real policy issues are not making their way through Congress.  Several bills have been introduced in the current Congress and have gone nowhere.  A bill introduced by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson in April sought to broaden participation – meaning that underrepresented groups like minorities and women would have had the opportunity to advance within the field.   It was the third time she tried passing STEM legislation and the third time she was unsuccessful.   Ask questions and find out where the candidates stand on this.  We need to think about who will meet the needs of our students as we are preparing to cast our ballots.

Our students need to know names like Marc Hannah, Dr. Mae Jemison, Tiffani Bell, and Amos Winbush and more importantly they need to know that they can be part of that success.  We must address the low number of minority and women within the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  We have to stem (pun intended) the tide of white males dominating these fields.  As STEM innovation continues, those who are less educated in these areas will be left behind.  We cannot allow our students to face a widening gap in educational and professional achievement.  It is the difference in where we go and how we develop as a community.  Today’s opportunity will lead to tomorrow’s promise, but only if we capitalize on it.