Months back, University of California, Berkeley’s College of Engineering posted a newly created assistant dean of equity and inclusion position to impact the climate and culture of the college and help it carry out its stated mission of educating an inclusive group of leaders and impacting equity.

It wasn’t so surprising that a major university was seeking to be more inclusive in a demographically skewed course of study.

Women are 47% of the overall workforce yet occupy only 15% of engineering jobs while Blacks make up 11% of the nation’s workforce but hold 5% of engineering jobs, according to Pew Research analysis of federal employment and education data. While one in four students is Hispanic and this group represents 17% of the workforce, only 8% hold science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) positions.

However, the UC Berkeley announcement caught my eye for more personal reasons. I’d been enrolled in the College of Engineering at Cal as a junior for a mere five weeks and was heartened to see evidence of the university making an effort to support and retain non-traditional students.

Is there progress in the STEM pipeline for non-traditional students?

Recently, while assisting with the 50 Top Colleges and Universities for Latinx Students in STEM report by Calculus Roundtable, I listened to young Latinas relate their experiences as college students in STEM disciplines. The parallels to my own story were uncanny. It caused me to wonder what if any progress had been made in retaining the non-traditional engineering student since the Reagan years, when I had slipped out of the so-called STEM pipeline.

For certain, there seems to be more attention to the issue of retaining under-represented students as evidenced by the UCB job announcement.

While data show Blacks and Hispanics less likely to earn degrees in STEM than other degree fields, organizations like Calculus Roundtable are working to change those odds. One way is by engaging for K-12 students, particularly children of color, in math and science through alternative and highly effective methods.

Hand in hand with giving kids regular access to math and science that is engaging and at the right level, is identifying and addressing micro messages that affect them at a social-emotional as well as academic level. This includes employing more teachers of color, a culturally relevant curriculum and other inclusive strategies.

Authors of a large-scale study that compared grades of 1.6 million students concluded that when a girl graduates from 12th grade, she’s as likely as a boy to have earned high enough grades to pursue a career in STEM. However, when she evaluates her options, “the STEM path is trod by more male competitors than non-STEM, and presents additional internal and external threats due to her and societies’ gendered beliefs stereotype threat and backlash effects.”

For me, a strong desire to shift stereotypes played an important part in my attraction to an engineering career as a high school student. The shift in stereotypes needs to begin much earlier in the education pipeline — in elementary school — according to Erin Twamley, an award-winning children’s book author and educator featured previously in a MultiBriefs Exclusive on how role models can help shift female underrepresentation in STEM careers. Twamley is working to bring the diverse faces of STEM into elementary classrooms. She created the STEM Superheroes™ Series and movement of publications (e.g., Everyday Superheroes book series) and leads interactive encounters with schools and Girl Scout Troops sharing the stories, careers and superpowers of diverse women working in STEM.

“We need kids to imagine themselves in STEM careers and know that these careers are making an impact in our communities and on our planet,” explains Twamley.

Addressing STEM pipeline leaks in higher education

Another sign of progress is recent research that’s being conducted to identify leaks in the pipeline and look for solutions.

The Hispanics in STEM report analyzes data collected from SRF’s survey of more than 16,000 high school students in STEM classrooms nationwide prior to the Covid-19 crisis and identifies evidence-based insights to expand the STEM talent pool.

In high school STEM classrooms, when compared with white and Asian students who fall into the historically overrepresented in STEM (ORG) category, Hispanic students expressed similar levels of aspiration to pursue STEM careers. Yet females were 36 points less likely that males to aspire to a STEM career regardless of race.

Data on college degrees among Latinx students reflects this disparity, as females earn substantially fewer bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields than males (36% vs. 64%).

Researchers at Pew note that employment statistics have a strong tie to higher education. “The long-term outlook for diversity in the STEM workforce is closely tied to representation in the STEM educational system, particularly across the nation’s colleges and universities,” they state.

This issue deeply concerns Calculus Roundtable as well. Their 50 top schools for Latinx students report stemmed from the absence of a recognized network of higher education institutions tailored to the needs of this community as is the case with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for African Americans and women’s colleges for students identifying as female. Their report helps students and families identify colleges with a large Latinx student body that emphasize programs, affinity groups and other supports for Latinx students.

Addressing micro-messaging and areas of divergence for underrepresented students

Since women and students of color are more likely to continue on the STEM pipeline when learning is relevant and they’re able to positively view themselves a future career in a specific area like engineering or computer science, institutions should dedicate resources to college recruitment efforts, advising, presentations, classroom assignments and projects.

Along with representation, classroom dynamics play a critical role in helping close the gap for girls and other marginalized groups according to Youki Terada. In a recent Edutopia article, he cites studies that link girls’ interest and achievement in STEM to lesson structure and increased collaboration, open-ended inquiry and outdoor science exploration in school.

“To make the field truly welcoming, we’ll need to look at the invisible dynamics of classrooms — the activities, assumptions, and ingrained structural issues that signal a deeper level of indifference to the needs of girls,” writes Terada.

I still wonder, had more emphasis gone to equity and inclusion during the ‘80s at institutions like UC Berkeley, would my story have ended differently?