You’re a highschool student infatuated with STEM. You adore the natural sciences. You excel in your computer science class, you are a problem-solving magician in your math class, you could spend hours in the lab testing a hypothesis, and one day, you want to become an engineer. So, you work your way into a prestigious university and it’s your first class of “Intro to Computer Science”. Super! You are ecstatic. But then you realize that you are one of the only black individuals in the room. As time passes, you are subordinated to being the note-taker as your white classmates lead the experiments. You see less and less people who look like you in your computer science class, and you can hear the atmosphere whispering: this isn’t a place for people like you. So, you rightfully get discouraged and drop the class because you get the impression that STEM may not be for black people.
While this is a fabricated story, it bears a close resemblance to Amida Koroma’s story as a junior studying bioengineering at the University of Maryland. Being a black, muslim women, she remembered feeling dissmissed as less capable by her white peers.
“When we’re working on a group project, they'll say things like, ‘You can do the typing’ as opposed to getting into the nitty-gritty of how to build this robot,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like I have to prove myself all over again.”
As a result, the next semester she unfortunately switched her major to psychology.
This story isn’t an anomaly, but an anecdotal illustration of the inferiority that blacks face at universities. As if it’s not enough that minority students have to combat stereotypes that paint them as intellectually inferior in their daily lives, their classroom environment continues to accept or ignore the prevalence of stereotyping and discrimination when they attend university.
Yet, the main problem isn’t that black students don’t like STEM. Black, White, and Hispanic students declare STEM majors at roughly the same rates - 18%, 19%, 20%, respectively - according to a study conducted by Riegle-Crumb, an associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin.
These numbers differ, however, when looking at how many students actually graduated with these STEM majors. According to the data, 58% of those white students earned their STEM-related degree, while 43% of Hispanics did, and 34% of Black students did. This suggests how black students are dropping out at much higher than white students, highlighting an issue with STEM classes in university.
According to the National Science, from 2001 to 2016, Black graduates only received 9% of the bachelor’s degrees in science. Specifically for engineering, it declined from 5% to 4% and in math it dropped from 7% to 4%. Additionally, Pew Research released figures that showed how in 2018, Black students earned 7% of STEAM bachelor’s degrees.
But this is only for the Blacks that attend college. The rate at which Blacks attend college is not something to be proud of to begin with, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this. Total black undergraduate enrollment at universities and colleges is down by more than 7%. This number encompasses the many black scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.
What is even more shocking is that STEM professions are a promising future for people, yet black college students are dropping out of STEM classes. STEM jobs not only provide employees higher salaries and benefits than other jobs but the demand for STEM jobs are on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in STEM fields is projected to grow twice as fast in the next decade.
But it’s even worse than that. The director of the Minority Engineer Program at Purdue University, Virginia Booth Womack, warned that “if people of color aren’t involved in the development of facial recognition, for instance, the software may misidentify Black people.” Personally, that’s a stretch for me, but the message that Womack is trying to urge has been clearly delivered: underrepresentation of blacks in STEM is perilous.
So what can we do?
We can support affirmative action for the college admission process. The University of Michigan conducted a study that suggested how bans on affirmative action have reduced the number of minority STEM graduates by 12%. So, to fix this, one option would be to continue to support affirmative action.
With regards to the discriminatory atmosphere in some STEM classes in universities, ideally, the classroom should be the safe haven for all students. So it's up to the classmates, teachers, and administrators to educate themselves on these daunting facts, and work to remedy them.