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Is the Pathway Approach the Optimal Strategy to Address the Underrepresentation in the STEM Fields?


The educational and professional spheres of the STEM industry when reviewed from a community participation lens reflect a significantly disproportionate participation rate when a comparative analysis is conducted between non-BIPOC and BIPOC communities. For the context of this article, BIPOC relates to anyone who is African American (Black), Indigenous, or a person of color. In addition to the representation disparities seen between non-BIPOC and BIPOC communities there is an even greater deficit when a comparative analysis is conducted to analyze participation within the STEM industry focusing solely on gender as it relates to female versus male influence and participation in STEM.


The underrepresentation of BIPOC community members and females within the STEM fields has stirred advocacy amongst professionals, students, and companies to address the issue. Moreover, legislation has been enacted to ensure proper governmental support and funding in creating an inclusive STEM industry within the United States, such as the CHIPS and Science Act. The new legislation coupled with the continued advocacy has sparked discussions regarding the optimal strategy or strategies for increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the STEM industry across the professional, academic, and research landscapes. One strategy that has been brought forth is the Pathway Approach. The Pathway Approach is a method in which students’ skills and interests are matched with various STEM careers that speak to their skills and interests for the purpose of creating a clear roadmap to guide the students through college and into a fulfilling career where their enate talents, developed skills, and interests can be applied. The Pathway Approach is not exclusive to secondary schooling and some professionals argue it can be started as early as Kindergarten.


In my secondary schooling, we had a similar approach in the form of two career pathway offerings, which were science and arts. I chose the science pathway, and the school in addition to providing focused STEM education also nurtured my interests through supplemental offerings such as guidance counselors, mentors, and other resources that enabled me to pursue my collegiate and career aspirations. Based on my personal success as a pathway science student coupled with the various research articles and professional discussion forums on the topic, it adds fuel to the question: should STEM Pathways coupled with nurturing supplemental resources be introduced on the secondary or K-12 levels to increase DEI in STEM field?


The aforementioned question burns in my chest, not only because I am a professional and educator in STEM, but because I recognize that my ability to enter into the STEM field and be met with success was not entirely my own doing. Growing up, my uncle, a veterinary doctor, and my father were instrumental in discussing my career goals with me. My father suggested civil engineering or architecture, however, I was determined to become a medical doctor. In reflection, my desire to pursue practical medicine may have been influenced by my frequent illnesses as a child, which required numerous hospital visits. Please note, I do not advocate using sickness or loss as a motivation for career choices. Outside of my father and uncle it is 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. Despite the parental shifts experienced, what always remained constant was the emphasis on education within my home and community. I am sharing this information to highlight the communal efforts that I was the benefactory of, which provided the opportunity to pursue STEM and see myself operating in the industry despite low representation and the known obstacles faced by BIPOCs in STEM. My story is similar to many other BIPOCs experiences and introduction into STEM, which causes one to ponder the idea if the lack of participation is a result of limited mentorships and supplemental resources outside of classroom instruction, which adds even more fuel to the question: should STEM Pathways coupled with nurturing supplemental resources be introduced on the secondary or K-12 levels to increase DEI in the STEM field?


In a recent article by Bill Gates entitled, A Map from Classroom to Career | Bill Gates (gatesnotes.com), which reflected on Mr. Gate’s visit to the Chaffey College in Southern California. Within the article Mr. Gate’s highlighted that Chaffey College is a school committed to providing students with career pathways. The pathway approach Chaffey College utilizes aligns students' skills and interests with potential careers both within and outside of STEM. Mr. Gates also highlighted that he enjoyed his visit, particularly spending time with students engaged in the cybersecurity pathway, some of whom were still in high school but already had job opportunities awaiting them after graduation. Despite the students’ diverse backgrounds and ambitions, Chaffey College was able to develop career pathways that allowed niche communities to be developed as students were able to connect through the commonality of career interests, which promotes an academic and professional development focused school environment. Chaffey College is one of many schools who have adopted career pathways, however, it does not by itself address the issue of underrepresentation amongst the BIPOC communities as well as females.

The journey for students from underserved and underrepresented communities, as well as girls, to pursue 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). Increasing DEI within STEM is crucial because 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). Moreover, STEM is critical in various sectors, including medicine, energy, healthcare, environment, and technology, ensuring sustainable development and continuous innovation (Bøe et al., 2011).


Additionally, STEM fosters innovation and contributes to a nation's global competitiveness, meaning 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). It is important to note, that underserved BIPOC community members access to the STEM workforce is vital not only for equitable education, but because STEM jobs offer higher wages, and the industry has 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), which places even more emphasis and need for DEI in STEM fields.


In relation to increasing the interest and achievement rates in STEM-related disciplines, 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 (student) to employment (professional). 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."


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.

As we speak on the topic of increasing DEI within STEM it is important to highlight that 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 ensure the salary offered to women in STEM fields is equitable to their male counterparts.

Nonetheless, despite the progress, there is still much more to be done, which brings us back to our discussion of regarding introducing STEM focused Pathway Approaches. A 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 summarize, 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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