The STEM crisis is exacerbated by the shifting demographics. Whites make up 73 percent of the STEM workforce. Blacks and Latinos, who represent 28 percent of the U.S. population, make up only seven percent of STEM workers.
Over the holidays, I watched a documentary about American aviation. During World War II, there was a shortage of white male workers. Black workers were excluded from all but menial jobs. So the government, with the help of advertising agencies, gave factory jobs a makeover. And then the light bulb went off: The iconic Rosie the Riveter was a STEM worker!
One of the most popular versions of “Rosie the Riveter” was recorded by the Four Vagabonds.
Popular culture was used to encourage women to pursue “man-size” jobs.
The propaganda campaign worked. White women poured into factories and produced munitions and war supplies. The wartime workforce demographics also opened up opportunities for black women.
Fast forward to today. The shifting demographics and minority underrepresentation in STEM fields threaten our global competitiveness and national security. To borrow a phrase from President Obama’s election night speech, “We have to fix that.” To do so, we should go back to the future and give STEM a makeover.
A report by the Bayer Corporation found that one of the leading causes of minority underrepresentation is the prevalence of stereotypes that say STEM isn’t for minorities. Singer-songwriter will.i.am is determined to fix that. He recently observed:
I am trying to encourage kids to do something that isn’t yet on their mind because it is not in popular culture. Popular culture tells you “music, music, sports, sports.” It neglects the importance of a STEM education.
An innovator, will.i.am is rebranding STEM and making space history. For the first time, a recorded song was transmitted to Earth from another planet. His song, “Reach for the Stars,” was beamed down from the Mars Curiosity rover to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. How cool is that?
Hip hop icon GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan has teamed up with Columbia Teachers College professor Christopher Emdin and the website Rap Genius to use hip hop to teach science. They have created a contest, Science Genius BATTLES (Bringing Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science), that requires students to write science-based raps.
At the launch of the pilot project, GZA said:
I am here not as a teacher, nor expert, nor genius. But I’m here as a science enthusiast who wants to inspire New York City public high school students to get excited about biology, chemistry and physics.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know the current approaches to STEM education are not working. According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only four percent of African American 12th graders were proficient in science. By contrast, 27 percent of white seniors and 36 percent of Asian American seniors performed at or above the proficient level.
GZA and will.i.am are bringing attention to the crisis and connecting STEM to students’ interests. At the same time, they are giving STEM a much-needed makeover.