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Could the “Pathway” Approach Be a Strategy for Addressing the Underrepresentation in STEM Field?

Updated: Jun 25, 2023


Could the “pathway” approach be the potentially strategy of addressing the underrepresentation of BIPOC communities, including Blacks, Indigenous people, people of color, and girls, in STEM fields? The "pathways" approach is a method that matches students' skills and interests with potential careers, offering them a clear roadmap to achieve their goals. In my secondary school, we had a similar approach with two career pathways: science and arts. I chose the science pathway, and my school not only provided me with education but also nurtured my interest in science by offering guidance, mentors, and resources to help me pursue my career aspirations. This strategy begs the question: could implementing a similar approach benefit parents in BIPOC communities and help address the underrepresentation of Blacks, indigenous people, people of color, and girls in STEM fields?


Growing up, my uncle, a veterinary doctor, and my father were instrumental in discussing my career goals with me. While my father suggested civil engineering or architecture, I was determined to become a medical doctor. Perhaps my desire was influenced by my frequent illnesses as a child, which required numerous hospital visits. I do not advocate using sickness as a motivation for career choices. It's also possible that I drew inspiration from my mother, who pursued her education, or my stepfather, an African American who adopted me and my siblings. However, what remained consistent was the emphasis on education within my community. Efforts were made to send children to boarding schools to minimize distractions, although I now recognize that boarding school isn't suitable for every child.


In a recent article by Bill Gates titled A map from classroom to career | Bill Gates (gatesnotes.com), he highlighted his visit to Chaffey College in Southern California, a school committed to providing students with a "pathways" approach. This approach aligns students' skills and interests with potential careers, offering them a roadmap to success. Gates enjoyed spending time with students on the cybersecurity pathway, some of whom were still in high school but already had job opportunities lined up after graduation. Despite their diverse backgrounds and ambitions, these students shared the common objective of pursuing a career in cybersecurity.


The journey for students from underserved and underrepresented communities, as well as girls, pursuing STEM careers is often marked by inequality and numerous challenges. Many individuals become discouraged and drop out due to low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and inadequate support. Reports, such as the one by Harwell et al. (2015), emphasize the significance of improving K-12 science education in the United States to foster students' interest in STEM fields. STEM is crucial for a nation's development, providing an advantage in global economic competition, enhancing STEM literacy, and offering financial and job security (Saxton et al., 2014). It serves as a foundation for sustaining a nation's creative and innovative capacity, as well as providing skilled employees in both STEM and non-STEM fields (Capraro & Nite, 2014; Chalmers et al., 2017; Han et al., 2016; Honey et al., 2014; Nadelson & Seifert, 2017). STEM is critical in various sectors, including medicine, energy, healthcare, environment, and technology, ensuring sustainable development and continuous innovation (Bøe et al., 2011). Moreover, STEM fosters innovation and contributes to a nation's global competitiveness. To remain economically viable in a knowledge-driven global economy, the United States must raise interest and achievement rates in STEM-related disciplines (Shahali et al., 2017; Waters, 2018).


Bill Gates suggests that designing programs and structures that span K-12, college, and work can help create seamless, structured, and commonsensical pathways for students, supporting their transition from education to employment. Parents and teachers could play a pivotal role in increasing BIPOC representation in STEM fields by being mentors and cheerleaders, ensuring students follow paths aligned with their interests from home to classroom to commencement and beyond. Parents, teachers, and communities can collectively identify potential obstacles and transition points in students' educational journeys, acting as a supportive village, as the African proverb goes, "it takes the whole village to raise a child."


Growing up in Africa, my uncle, a veterinary doctor, and my father were instrumental in discussing my career goals with me. While my father suggested civil engineering or architecture, I was determined to become a medical doctor. Perhaps my desire was influenced by my frequent illnesses as a child, which required numerous hospital visits. I do not advocate using sickness as a motivation for career choices. It's also possible that I drew inspiration from my mother, who pursued her education, or my stepfather, an African American who adopted me and my siblings. However, what remained consistent was the emphasis on education within my community. Efforts were made to send children to boarding schools to minimize distractions, although I recognize that boarding school isn't suitable for every child.


And, while there has been some progress in diversifying the STEM workforce, as highlighted in a report by the NSF's NCSES releases report on diversity trends in STEM workforce and education | NSF - National Science Foundation, Hispanic, Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native individuals collectively represented 31% of the U.S. population but accounted for only 24% of the STEM workforce.


Further examination of the report revealed that most individuals from these groups were likelier to work in STEM occupations requiring technical skills or certification than those requiring a bachelor's degree or higher education, as noted by the NSF. This underrepresentation of diverse groups, including individuals with disabilities, in STEM careers compared to their population in the United States underscores the need to address equity and diversity challenges in the STEM fields. Given the significant advancements and innovations in STEM, particularly in technologies like AI, and the recent legislation on the CHIPS and Science Act, it is crucial to increase BIPOC representation and salary of women in STEM fields to enhance overall quality of life.


Access to the STEM workforce is vital because STEM jobs offer higher wages and lower unemployment rates, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or disability status. According to U.S. News' economic projections in 2014, STEM jobs have grown faster (17%) than jobs in other sectors (10%). Researchers from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predict that the demand for STEM jobs will exceed the production rate over the next decade. The U.S. labor department highlights the importance of STEM skills for job productivity and competitiveness in medicine, health, technology, information technology, and manufacturing. However, there is concern about the lag in STEM competence skills in the United States (Bybee et al., 2017).


Considering the global significance of STEM competence and its essential role in employment within the 21st-century STEM economy, increasing STEM competence among urban, high-poverty, elementary school populations is crucial for future employability (Sueanne et al., 2017). Engaging parents, teachers, and communities in STEM pathways that interest students can help foster STEM competence and prepare students for gainful employment. This process involves identifying students' strengths and talents, supporting them through counseling, mentoring, and providing necessary resources.


Additionally, quality advising could help students identify suitable career paths aligned with their STEM interests, select the right colleges and universities, and develop effective career plans without incurring excessive debt. Encouraging students to enroll in AP courses during high school, which can serve as substitutes for prerequisite college courses, can also be beneficial. In this regard, parents and students can negotiate agreements wherein successfully completing AP courses can bring their children financial benefits or other rewards to the student.


Another critical component for successful pathways is creating business roundtable career connections. This involves providing students with opportunities for project-based assignments, summer internships, apprenticeships, and job shadows. These experiences allow students to gain practical insights into their chosen professions, acquire relevant skills and experience, evaluate the viability of their ideas, and establish valuable networks. Maintaining support for students by regularly checking in, ensuring they feel supported, and addressing their mental health needs is equally important. By intentionally supporting students through the challenges and detours they may encounter, we can enhance representation and alleviate anxiety among BIPOC students pursuing STEM degrees and careers.


To sum up, creating intentional and structured pathways from home to classroom to commencement to a career that aligns with students' interests can contribute to increasing representation of BIPOC students in the STEM fields. Parents, teachers, and communities play vital roles in identifying students' strengths and interests, providing support and resources, and guiding them along their chosen pathways. Additionally, addressing equity and diversity challenges in STEM fields is crucial to harnessing the benefits of innovation and advancement. As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of STEM, let us ensure that opportunities are accessible to all, empowering BIPOC students to become valuable contributors to the STEM economy and improve their overall quality of life.


Authored by Dr. Ayo Olufade, Ph.D


Think STEM Careers! You Have the Opportunity to Create the Future and the Privilege Of Deciding What’s In It! ~ Dr. Ayo Olufade, PhD

Excel in Learning. Excel in Life.

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