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Diversity in STEM Part 2: Barriers to Success for Underrepresented Minority Students

The benefits of increased diversity in the sciences are abundantly clear. We explore some of the struggles and opportunities for diversity in science, technology, engineering and math careers in Milwaukee in our new series Diversity in STEM. If you missed yesterday’s article, you can read it here, and catch the last installment here.

If we can bridge the gap between the underrepresented minorities in this country and the STEM industries who want them, there is a massive potential for liberating the disenfranchised by providing them real opportunities for advancing careers and quality of life improvement. More opportunities for underprivileged minority communities are certainly needed. Per the last U.S. Census, one in four African Americans, Hispanic, and Native Americans live below the poverty line. Compare this to the proportion of white Americans living in poverty, which is about one in ten. Segregation in urban environments create bubbles of self-perpetuating poverty due to low education, childhood struggles, exposure to crime, and poor employment options. The few employment choices that do exist in these communities do not typically pay well. Alternatively, the STEM workforce will grow to over 8.5 million jobs by 2018 and is set to increase 17 percent over the next 10 years, compared to just 12 percent for other employment. These STEM jobs also tout the highest starting salary on average than any other career field. In communities that are starved for resources, an olive branch may exist here, if only a way can be found to extend it to them.

Of course, bridging the diversity gap in STEM is not as easy as simply connecting underprivileged communities with the industries that might hire them. The potential for a growing minority presence in STEM fields is certainly strong, though: research shows the percentage of minority college students desiring to enter STEM fields is similar to their white counterparts. However, by their second year in college, more than two-thirds of these underrepresented minority students quit their science focus for a different major. What happens to them? The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology wrote a thorough executive report in 2012 about this very issue. Underrepresented minority students in STEM seem to leave their fields due to a weak math and science foundation in their primary education, culture barriers in the highly-competitive and unforgiving college atmosphere, and a lack of diverse pathways into STEM careers. Urban school districts, which teach the majority of underrepresented minority students, must spread fewer resources over more students compared to suburban schools. Urban students also tend to deal with more personal issues which can be a distraction from primary school education (as Cristal described earlier), such as family struggles, poverty, crime, or social pressures. Some students do not see reasonable opportunities for academic careers in their community and therefore lose the motivation to educate themselves. This all results in lackluster scores in math, science and reading in many urban schools. Even when these students succeed in attending college, starting with a substandard math and science background compared to their less disadvantaged peers means minority students immediately feel behind in pursuing a STEM degree. In a poll conducted at Brown University in 2013, 45 percent of black students and 61 percent of Hispanic students said they felt “unprepared” to pursue a STEM field compared to just 30 percent of white students. Without a proper support system to encourage them through the process of “catching up,” without a feeling like they belong, and without any alternative paths into STEM such as 2-year degree pipelines, most underrepresented minority students likely see a friendlier career path far away from STEM. An enormous pool of potential talent and diversity in our science and technology industries is lost.


Support Systems for the Underrepresented in STEM

The most obvious course of action to benefit our economy, our underprivileged communities, and our advancement of science is to provide the foundational support necessary for underrepresented minority students to succeed in pursuing STEM careers once they enter higher education. These careers have the highest potential to provide secure, well-paying jobs in industries that value them. Many programs have been taking the charge on these initiatives for decades. Some examples on the national level:

National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME)

Their mission is to support minority students in pursuing engineering careers through encouraging a heavy STEM presence in K-12 education, providing career development services, partnering with industry leaders, and awarding grants for underrepresented minority students in higher education. NACME has provided over $150 million in scholarship and program support to 24,000 underrepresented minority students over their 40-year existence.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW)

The AAUW is program to support and encourage young women to pursue science and engineering, with a goal of building a “STEM Pipeline” for women and closing the gender gap in STEM fields.


We also see successful initiatives on the local level:

STEM Forward

A southeastern Wisconsin-based organization that partners with Milwaukee schools and industries to increase the visibility of science and engineering. They also provide pipelines for students to enter engineering fields through scholarships and events that introduce students to professionals in engineering.


“See Yourself Succeeding in STEM” (SYS-STEM) is an NSF-funded collaboration between the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, The Water Council and the Business Higher Education Forum (BHEF) that matches students in 2-year technical programs with leaders in the water industry. Students with low income, first generation status or with underrepresented backgrounds are provided paid internships with STEM companies like Pentair, Graef, or Advanced Waste Services. These internships provide students with invaluable practical experience and networking opportunities to enrich their possibility of a STEM career in the water industry.

The University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee STEM-Inspire Program

This program has a strong diversity initiative. It connects underrepresented students with national scholarships and programs that provide financial assistance or internship opportunities; it also provides mentorships for students by pairing them with university faculty members.

McNair Scholars program

McNair is a national program with a local Milwaukee presence, which has a sole purpose of increasing the number of graduate degrees awarded to students from underrepresented backgrounds. The McNair program awards scholarships for students to pursue internships in their field of choice and provides a support network to assist them in succeeding in their graduate career. This scholarship is how Cristal Sanchez found herself at the School of Freshwater Sciences over a year ago, where she continues to work today. She describes the importance of the McNair program in pursuing her career goals:

[The McNair program connected me with] the School of Freshwater Sciences. I wanted laboratory experience and this was an opportunity for me to gain that and to learn about a topic I was not very familiar with. Overall, it was an educational opportunity that I knew I should take. This opportunity turned out to be a wakeup call for me as to what career paths I can take. I was not aware about what a PhD really was and how I can obtain it, but the McNair program filled that gap for me and now I realize that I would love to pursue a PhD in biomedical sciences.  

With such substantial benefits to intellectual projects and with tech companies on the hunt for more diverse hires, it is difficult to imagine why diversity isn’t more common among the science and engineering fields. What holds back the potential pipeline of underrepresented students in STEM careers? And what support systems do we have in place to improve this situation? Find out in the next section of this series.

Written by Brandon Gross for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)

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