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Diversity in STEAM: It’s Time for a Crucial Conversation

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I’ve spent nearly 30 years pursuing exciting projects in science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM). From an early age, I was curious about the world around me. Although I couldn’t put a name to it, I knew I would explore a path of creativity, ingenuity and experimentation.

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I often get asked, “Why did you pursue a career in STEAM?” and my answer is “to get my questions answered.” My innate curiosity was first realized when a bolt of lightning hit the oak tree outside my childhood home. The bolt of energy ran into the ground, hit the power line, traveled into my home and blew up my father’s prize color TV in the midst of a Chicago Bears game.

While my father was mourning the loss of his prize TV, I remember staring outside in wonder and amazement at what was once had been an oak tree but now was split in two with smoke emitting from the charred remains. I later learned that the culprit was thundersnow, a rare occurrence when a thunderstorm in cold temperatures produces snow instead of rain. And my love of meteorology, or the science of understanding the atmosphere, was born.

I’ve had amazing experiences during my career, such as serving as the on-site meteorologist during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. I was awarded a Bronze Medal from the Department of Commerce for providing around- the-clock forecasts for 11 days before, during and after Katrina made landfall. I spearheaded the “Turn Around Don’t Drown” campaign, which is a national flood safety awareness campaign geared toward saving lives and avoiding flooded roadways.

I served as the federal officer responsible for coordinating the third national assessment of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee, in which over 60 experts contributed to an assessment of the climate. I also helped build satellites, develop policy, create research to operations initiatives and created a #WOMENofNOAA campaign to highlight the achievements of nearly half of the organization’s workforce. In just about every one of my positions, I was the youngest, the first female, the first African-American or some combination of the three.

STEAM Lacks Diversity

While I am proud of my many firsts, it also pains me to see that the STEAM field is sorely underrepresented when it comes to people from low socioeconomic communities, people of color and women. There are many “isms” — racism, sexism, ageism, and classism — that prevent them from breaking the glass ceiling and entering unchartered careers.

Unfortunately, I was not shocked to learn that many women, such as APU Edge podcast guest Dr. Jamese Sims, also have many firsts. Dr. Vernon Morris, a professor at the University of Arizona, highlighted his STEAM challenges in his op-ed, “Combating Racism in the Geosciences: Reflections From a Black Professor.”

STEAM Statistics

The underrepresentation of diversity in STEAM is not new. Rather, it has been discussed for more than 20 years as the STEAM pipeline continues to deteriorate. While many elementary schools have incorporated science and STEAM fairs into their curriculum, children start to lose interest in STEAM activities in middle school, and two out of every three girls are not encouraged to pursue STEAM as an academic career.

Women make up 47% of the workforce, but are severely underrepresented when it comes to STEAM positions. According to the National Science Foundation, women comprise 29% of the STEM workforce and 52% of the college-educated workforce.

According to UNESCO data, only around 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. Globally, female students’ enrollment is particularly low in information and communications technology (3%), in natural science, mathematics and statistics (5%), and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8%).

In addition, there is a clear loss of women from the workforce as they bear the majority of childcare responsibilities. Vice President Kamala Harris called this loss a national emergency as 2.5 million American women have left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The statistics for minorities are equally alarming. The National Science Foundation reports that minorities (Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Latinos) collectively make up just 4.87% of the STEM workforce and hold only 3.87% of STEAM faculty positions at academic institutions.

STEAM Solutions

So, now I’m putting on my STEAM hat. If we know the problem, underrepresentation in STEAM, then what is the solution? I offer a few of my thoughts on this topic:

1. Start Talking — First, we need to acknowledge that there is a STEAM pipeline problem and have crucial conversations with all members of the professional community to hear real-life experiences, challenges, and how to overcome them.

2. Develop a Pipeline — Future leaders need to be introduced to STEAM careers at the earliest opportunity. According to Professor S.T.E.A.M., there needs to be a bridge to lessen the broadening gap between STEAM careers and qualified individuals to excel in these roles. Parents should begin reading to children at age 2, and studies have shown they develop their formative skills and curiosity of the world by age 8.

3. Create Mentor, Coaching and Peer Opportunities — Students need to receive hands-on experience in STEAM careers during their primary education. This experience means developing virtual field trips, career fairs, and presentations during which they are exposed to the careers of tomorrow. STEM mentors can support this concept by “connecting youth and mentors for fun, hands-on activities about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), with a particular focus on conservation.”

4. Volunteer — We can each contribute to STEAM by volunteering our talents. According to STEM Scouts, “Adult volunteers are a crucial component of STEM Scouts. Each Lab needs both male and female leaders, some with and some without a STEM background, as well as short-term volunteers, field trip guides and other adults. The Council provides all the training you need to get a successful Lab up and running.” We need to develop a society that is comfortable infusing STEAM into everyday experiences, exposing youth to STEAM in a variety of ways.

5. Develop ‘Allyships’ — Each person has the ability to be a champion for STEAM. This means developing STEAM opportunities for children. For example, speaking of preparing students for future careers, Bill Coderre, President and CEO of Junior Achievement Great Lakes, said, “That work readiness component is all also focused on teaching kids the soft skills of how to be successful in the workplace, but also exposing them to career opportunities but they might not get exposed to.”

My hope is that those curious, inquisitive future leaders will be able to utilize the STEAM pipeline to pursue the careers of their dreams. My science career started with a curiosity in thundersnow, and now I’m proud to be a STEAM advocate. Science, technology, engineering, arts, and math can be strengthened by encouraging and enabling a diverse workforce.

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is an award-winning author, presenter, and professor at American Public University with nearly 30 years of experience in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM). A global speaker, STEAM advocate, and STEM communicator, she holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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