Approximately 30 percent of Americans are black, Latino, or Native American, as are nearly 30 percent of freshmen STEM students. But at graduation, the seats are filled with only 17 percent of the same minority groups. Dr. David Asai, senior director of the undergraduate and graduate science education program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, MD, spends much time thinking about this conundrum.
Asai believes that it could be that the way science is taught fails to engage all students.
“We who teach science need to make sure that all students are learning,” he said. “Three hours of lectures a week might not be reaching all students.”
While the data show that students who leave STEM go on to successfully graduate in other disciplines, the lack of these minorities is hindering science. Because science is so collaborative, Asai noted, it’s important to have diversity among working groups because that fosters looking at problems from various points of view.
Despite a successful career in the sciences, Asai said that as an undergraduate he often sat in the back of the lecture hall and didn’t ask or answer questions. It was his participation in undergraduate research that engaged him in his studies.
The more popular apprentice-based research is hit-or-miss, Asai said, because only a small number of students are selected. Those who aren’t as assertive or who don’t have a relationship with the professor traditionally aren’t selected. Instead he argues for class-based research, which while not an alternative to apprentice-based, gives many students the opportunity to learn the process of science.
Looking at Successful Models
There are programs successfully graduating larger cohorts of underrepresented students in the STEM fields, especially the University of Maryland – Baltimore County’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, a 25-year program with more than 800 alumni working successfully in STEM fields, and the Posse STEM program which has been adopted at ten colleges and universities around the country. Currently HHMI is engaging in experiments with other universities to see if they can replicate success with strategies from the Meyerhoff program.
One of his key points is that science education is important for all students, especially as departments and disciplines become more integrated, and because technology touches everyone’s lives. He believes that institutions need to look at how they allocate resources, especially if low-level courses are low priority.
“If an introductory course is the only time many students are exposed to science don’t we want to do better than allotting limited resources to these courses?” Asai said.
Asai will speak at this year’s NAC&U Summer Institute, June 25 to 27, at the University of Redlands. There he will discuss the importance of diversity in the STEM fields as well as how undergraduate research can help all students more fully engage in their studies.