Seeds of STEM Inequity Sown Early

/ 28 January 2014 / eunice

Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, January 28, 2014 – The good news: Minnesota stayed off the list of states with no black or Hispanic students taking the AP Computer Science test.

The bad news: We missed the list by less than ten students. In 2011-12, only nine black or Hispanic students took the test.

A quick look at the graph shows that we’ve got something of an uneven distribution going on here for both race and sex.

(Data from Georgia Tech’s analysis of College Board data)

We hear a lot about STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — these days, and one of the major STEM fields of employment is the computer science industry. It’s certainly been a big deal for my family; both of my parents worked for IBM down in Rochester (my father still does, as does my father-in-law), and my brother is out in Seattle working for Microsoft.

However, computer science remains a very male-dominated field, and one that’s welcomed very few black and Latino workers. One could write this off simply to hiring bias, which may play a part, but take a look at computer science classes in higher education and you still won’t find many black, Latino, or female students.

Clearly, from the graph above, we can’t just blame our institutions of higher education, either. The specialization into computer science starts earlier, and the K-12 demographics perpetuate themselves into college, and then into the industry. Some of this is about access — which students’ schools offer computer science classes in the first place — and some of it is about who we’re encouraging to enroll and how we’re teaching the classes.

For better or worse, computer science tends to come with a very meritocratic ethos, even by modern U.S. standards. If we’re not preparing students of all backgrounds to compete in that milieu, we will continue to see a major STEM field continue to be very limited in its diversity. More work must be done to investigate the sources of this discrepancy and close these gaps.