Lack of diversity part of equation in STEM fields
Tonya Groover, a University of Pittsburgh graduate student, helps pique STEM interest by having high school students build robots.
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Tonya Groover was a tomboy growing up in Penn Hills, so she hasn't felt uncomfortable as one of the few women -- and one of the few black students -- studying computer science at the University of Pittsburgh.
"I think I fit right in with the boys because I liked to play sports, and computers just came naturally," said Ms. Groover, 23.
At home, she had both a computer and a dad who tinkered with them.
"I'm a problem-solver, and I like the challenge," she said.
Now she is among those trying to address the national issue of a lack of diversity -- both women and underrepresented minorities such as blacks and Hispanics -- in some of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, known as STEM.
Ms. Groover, who earned a bachelor's degree in computer science from Pitt in 2007 and is working on a master's in computer science there, founded and directs the Technology Leadership Institute at Pitt.
The effort includes a six-week academic-enrichment program for high school students in which they build a computer from scratch, do computer programming and learn other technical skills. Most who participate are minorities or girls.
Nationwide, there is a push for more women and underrepresented minorities to choose STEM fields.
Many colleges and universities have programs aimed at increasing diversity in STEM fields, including supports such as tutoring, mentoring and research opportunities.
While black people account for about 15 percent of the population between ages 20 and 24, only about 8 percent of science and engineering degrees are earned by them, according to the National Science Foundation. The ratio is similar for Hispanics.
The number of bachelor's degrees in science, math and engineering is split roughly between men and women in NSF numbers, but women earn more bachelor's degrees overall. Therefore, a smaller portion of their total degrees are in STEM, 28 percent for women and 38 percent for men.
Participation tends to vary dramatically by STEM field.
According to the National Science Foundation, the most popular STEM field for men is engineering at 18.9 percent. However, only 3.8 percent of women choose engineering. Their most popular choice is behavioral sciences at 10.2 percent.
Even within engineering, men and women make different choices.
While 80 percent of the graduating engineering students in Pennsylvania are men, nearly half of those in bioengineering are women at the University of Pittsburgh, according to figures from the American Society for Engineering Education.
Harvey Borovetz, bioengineering chair at Pitt, thinks at least part of the reason is that bioengineering is attractive because it involves helping others, "which I think appeals to both men and women as a profession," he said. "We don't do extra recruiting for women."
Lindsay Wright of South Park, a senior in bioengineering at Pitt, said, "You can really see the impact you can have on lives and just the whole interdisciplinary aspect of bioengineering."
Bioengineering also is more attractive than some other engineering disciplines to black students. While about 4 percent of Pitt's engineering graduates in 2007 were black, 9 percent of those in bioengineering were black, according to the engineering education society.
Computer and information sciences are less popular among women, black and Hispanic students, according to the NSF. About three-fourths of the 2005 graduates nationwide were men. About 55 percent were white, 12 percent Asian, 10 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. The rest are other or unknown races and temporary residents.
Rami Melham, computer science department chair at Pitt, said the department tries to recruit women to the field, including the efforts of four female faculty members. Of the 220 majors, 28 -- 13 percent -- are women.
Dr. Melham said some women avoid computer science because they mistakenly believe it's for nerds who sit in front of computers without talking to anyone when communication actually is important.
Ms. Groover said, "Women are attracted to areas or fields [in which] they feel they're making a difference. Computer science is not presented in such a manner. Computer science is a field that will make a difference in the lives of hungry people or sick people."
At Community College of Allegheny County, women account for more than 75 percent of the students in biotechnology and lab technology and 72 percent of the students in psychology but just 21 percent of those in computer and information sciences and 12 percent of electronic engineering students are women.
Both females and underrepresented minorities can be discouraged from STEM long before college.
"I think science is seen as a man's world by a lot of people," said Candy DeBerry, associate professor of biology at Washington & Jefferson College. "All the studies show that somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, girls start losing their interest in science but might be equally interested in it in the third or fourth grade."
For underrepresented students, Jim Wyche, division director for human resource development at the National Science Foundation, said, "If you take math, which is probably the best example, we find that particularly underrepresented students are turning off to math at sixth grade."
At the age when some girls turn away from math and science, Dana Bruck, now a senior bioengineering major at the University of Pittsburgh, had a seventh-grade algebra teacher who recognized her strengths and gave her the idea of engineering.
"I never heard of engineering. No one in my family went to college, ever," said Ms. Bruck, a graduate of the Berlin Brothersvalley School District in Somerset County. "I started looking it up and trying to find more about it."
There are other reasons cited for a lack of participation by women or minorities, including preparation and lack of role models and exposure.
Speaking of the lack of role models for underrepresented minorities, Ms. Groover, said, "If you never experienced technology and technology does not influence your lifestyle in any way, shape or form, it's going to be unlikely you're going to grow up and want to be the person who develops technology that informs other people's lives."
She said some minority students also are not being scheduled for necessary math classes or computer science in high school.
Carl B. Mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, said he believes both a lack of exposure and preparation play a role.
Three years ago, the society, in partnership with the Society of Automotive Engineers, began summer camps for grades 3 and 8, first in Washington, D.C., and expanding to Columbus, Ohio, serving nearly 800 children, 95 percent of whom are black.
"If we can plant the seed, we're going to dramatically increase the number of engineers," Mr. Mack said.
Once attracted to engineering, however, Mr. Mack said 60 percent to 70 percent of black freshmen leave engineering, a problem the society also is working to address.
Locally, a retention program aimed particularly at underrepresented groups is EXCEL in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering which offers academic counseling, tutoring and study sessions as well as a two-week math-science boot camp before freshman classes begin.
The National Science Foundation also tries to increase diversity by providing help to historically black colleges and other colleges with underrepresented minorities, both on the undergraduate and graduate level.
"This is just a long haul effort to try to increase it," Dr. Wyche said. "We need another 10 to 15 years of effort."
First Published February 10, 2009 12:00 am