Jobs in the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – are growing faster than any other sector of the U.S. economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the U.S. continues to lag other countries in STEM education. Furthermore, new hires in science and tech overwhelmingly tend to be white and Asian men.
Shirley Malcom, an African-American woman born in Birmingham, Alabama, during segregation, navigated racism and sexism on her way to earning a Ph.D in ecology and becoming a director of the world’s largest general scientific society.
As part of a week-long series on science, Malcom speaks with Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson about the state of STEM education in America, and improving diversity in STEM fields.
Interview Highlights: Shirley Malcom
On the state of STEM education in the United States
“I think that right now in the United States, we are in the middle. We’re kind of middling. Our science is getting a little bit better for our middle school students. We’re still probably not having it taught as much for our elementary school students, and our high school students leave high school, really, not that well prepared for a world that is so much grounded in science and technology.”
On minorities and girls in the STEM fields
“Girls and minorities are just as interested in science as white males. You look at all the data that are coming out, that look at high school students who might be going to college, they are as likely to be interested in those STEM fields as their white males. The question about whether or not they’re getting what they need is a valid one. In the case of minority students, it relates to the fact that they often aren’t in the best schools where the best classes are being offered, that offer authentic science practices for them. In the case of girls, they may be in those schools, but they may not be receiving the kind of encouragement that is needed to really help you weather through or soldier on through the study of these fields.”
On reasons why minorities or girls might not be as visible in the field
“I think that it’s a societal problem. If you look around, you can see different instances to where different groups are being discouraged to go into fields that are mathematically intensive. I do think that every individual has an opportunity when confronted with a student a little bit different than what they think about a scientist as looking or an engineer as looking. Every individual has an opportunity to support, to encourage, to teach, to direct, to guide. But not everybody takes advantage of that.”
On her personal journey to becoming a scientist
“That is a long story. I’m a post-Sputnik kid. I’m old enough that I remember very much how exorcised the country was after Sputnik launched because that somehow meant in people’s mind that we were behind. All of a sudden science and mathematics got a lot of attention. Whether that was in the classroom, in terms of sending our faculty members off to professional development and courses or whether that was on the television or on the radio or in the newspaper. And so I was caught up like everybody else. But we didn’t have the same opportunities. We didn’t have the same schools. We had segregated schools, and they were poorly resourced. After all, there wasn’t an expectation that students who looked like me would ever end up going into the sciences.
And so I went off to go to college and I met all of my deficiencies. I came very close to quitting the sciences in my freshman year in college. After I confronted chemistry equipment I had never seen before and so I think everybody has to get through those periods and get over those periods.”
On how she got through her first year of college
“In that case, I asked for help. I finally asked for help. I got a nine out of 20 on my first chemistry lab quiz and a seven out of 20 on my second one, and I thought, ‘This is not the right direction.’ So I went to see my TA who happened to be the only African-American graduate student in the entire department in chemistry in the University of Washington. In that case I went to ask for help, but I first really had to make the plea that I was not dumb. I was under prepared. On my next quiz I got 18 out of 20 and he was happier than I was. I think that there a lot of students who are kind of in the same situation I was. They are confronted with things they have not seen in their earlier educational experience. Once I was successful, well, you feed off your success, and you say, ‘OK, I can do this.’ And I think that’s the key to help get students to the point where they can say to themselves, ‘I can do it,’ but also have the encouragement that shows how that can happen.”
On the notion that there’s a “brain for science”
“I don’t know that I believe there is a brain for science, in the same way that I don’t believe that there’s a gene for math. And I do think that it is a matter of how we are taught. It is true that not everyone will have the same interest. But in fact they can have experiences that can get them to a point where they are at least literate, and they can be savvy about science and really be able to look at claims that are being made and say whether or not these are reasonable. And that’s where we need to get everybody. And out of that group of everybody, we want at least be able to pull some of the individuals into the study and practice of science.”
On what someone can do to improve their science literacy
“I think that it’s never too late to start cultivating your interest and moving on those interests. There are opportunities for study in two-year institutions. Most places have community colleges that may be nearby. There are online opportunities for people to look at programming and what have you. There are all kinds of interesting things on YouTube. Some of them better than others. There are things that are available on television. There are excellent science books that are available. We actually review a lot of the science books that are for popular consumption and say which ones are good and which ones a really worth reading. And I think that those kinds of things where you are able to manage your own learning, to feed your interest. It’s never too late for that.”