First blog post; how exciting! I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about the urgent need to increase diversity in science and engineering (S&E) and how the Organization for Cultural Diversity in Science (OCDS) fits into this goal.
K-12 outreach is crucial for countless reasons; exposing children to captivating experiments provides them with new opportunities/outlooks and improves self-efficacy, potentially sparking a life-long passion in S&E. Events and groups like Explore Your Universe and CNSI Nanoscience Outreach offer amazing opportunities for UCLA students and faculty to get involved in K-12 S&E outreach. This post, however, will focus on why reaching out to students in S&E, especially underrepresented minorities (URMs), after high school (i.e. throughout their higher education and careers) is crucial in retaining diversity in our workforce.
Why bother with diversity?
Only recently did I realize how vital it is to articulate why diversity is important in S&E. I was under a naïve impression that basic concerns for equity and inclusion were enough to convince the general population that science should embrace people from different backgrounds. However, while becoming more vocal about increasing diversity, I have gradually heard some form of “why bother with diversity?” more and more. A common argument is that by creating more opportunities for URMs and women, prospects for white males are lowered... However, the U.S. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce is growing faster than any other field, and if the end goal is to conduct excellent science that asks and answers questions relevant to our general population, diversity is not only something worth supporting, it is essential. I would love to hear more from other people on why they think diversity is crucial, but I’ll outline a few of my opinions.
To me, it seems obvious that diversity is necessary for better research, and hopefully the above points persuade those who are not convinced. The good news is that there are many efforts to increase diversity in S&E, including outreach groups like OCDS!
Why should we also direct outreach towards students pursuing higher education?
While most STEM outreach organizations emphasize creating workshops and demos for K-12 students, I believe OCDS is unique in that our outreach efforts focus on engaging undergraduate URMs and women in S&E as well as providing graduate students with professional development opportunities. So... why concentrate on these student groups, especially since they have already expressed interest in S&E?
Let’s face it, retention in the S&E “pipeline” is low across the board, but this attrition disproportionately effects URMs and women. Although there have been improvements in the leakiness of the “pipeline” in general and in regards to diversity, we still have prominent issues that ought to be addressed:
Unless otherwise noted, the statistics in this section are all from data reported by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and can be accessed here.
Women earn slightly more than 50% of bachelor’s degrees in the social and biological sciences, but women earn 20% or less of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, physics, and engineering.
These are just a few quantitative examples of poor retention of URMs and women within S&E. Having identified a problem like this, it’s important to now try to understand why this problem exists.
Why do URMs and women tend to leave S&E?
Numerous studies (a few examples with much more detail than I’ll provide are linked here, here, and here) have researched URMs and women who have dropped out of their majors or programs. The following reasons for leaving are emphasized throughout all these studies:
Unfortunately, all of these reasons are a product of deeper systemic problems. Additionally, lack of mentorship/role models is an issue that perpetuates a viscous cycle where students are less likely to participate in S&E because they do not often see someone similar to themselves succeeding in these fields, therefore decreasing the number of future URM and female mentors.
Some attempts at tackling these issues include grants and fellowships aimed towards financially aiding URMs and women. Additionally, there are many programs which provide URMs and women with undergraduate research opportunities, like UCLA’s UC-HBCU Initiative.
How does OCDS fit into all of this?
The following article is very helpful in outlining how research programs can help boost URM participation in science by mitigating some of the reasons I outlined above. From this, I have focused a few important points relevant to OCDS’s mission and outreach efforts:
OCDS holds two major outreach events each year, our Fall and Spring “Science and Engineering Showcases,” which aim to expose undergraduate URMs and women to a number of unique opportunities. Our Fall showcase is open to UCLA undergraduates while the Spring showcase is exclusively for community college students. These events include faculty research talks where S&E professors speak about their experience in pursuing science as a career and their current academic research. Students are encouraged to engage in conversation with professors about their background and research. Professors also join the students for breakfast and lunch, facilitating further, more intimate interactions/discussions.
In addition to faculty interactions, OCDS Showcases include workshops which aim to educate students on how to pursue fellowships and undergraduate research opportunities. This includes information about where to find funding and summer research positions specifically allotted for URMs and women, advice on how to approach professors about working in their labs, and information about general lab expectations.
OCDS Showcase workshops also include a section about what graduate school is like and how to apply to graduate school. Additionally, students are taken on a wide variety of S&E lab tours, so they can see a glimpse of academic research environments, thus exposing them to new potential career paths. OCDS has also recently begun hosting professional development events for S&E graduate students which help Master’s and PhD students gain necessary skills towards their future careers. Our first event was a “Salary Negotiation Workshop” which we held with the UCLA Career Center earlier this year.
Although the efforts put forth by OCDS and other organizations are admirable, the number of URMs and women in S&E is still disproportionately low, so it is apparent that more work is required for us to achieve equity, diversity, and inclusion.
I end this post by asking readers what additional efforts you believe can further diversify the S&E workforce and, in particular, what you believe OCDS can do to continue promoting diversity in science.
Authors are members of OCDS who want to contribute their thoughts on particular subjects which are most important to them. Please feel free to email Marco if you are interested in posting on this blog! The topic and theme of your post is completely up to you and is meant to be written for a general audience.