There is a STEM crisis in the United States. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. The U.S. ranks 25th in math and 17th in science among the 65 countries participating in PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment.
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.
I would like to wish you a happy and healthy new year.
I plan a fresh start in 2013 with Philly Phresh Start, a project to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) among African American youth. I will apply the lessons learned from my year as a civic innovator to connect STEM to students’ day-to-day realities and interests.
The project will use pop-up hackerspaces, interactive video and social media to empower young people to imagine a better future.
I’m a policy wonk and doer. This time last year, I didn’t have a clue what happened at a hackathon. I associated hackers with bad guys who stole identities and broke into websites. So you can imagine my delight to be introduced to a community of civic-minded hackers. Hackathons provide a platform for problem-solvers and do-gooders to collaborate and create interesting things.
A lot of awesome prototypes are developed at hackathons. But to have an impact, the project must be sustained beyond the weekend. Like romance, a prototype without finance doesn’t stand a chance. So the team should include an evangelist who is passionate about the project. Someone who is willing to spend the time and energy it will take to get resources to build out the app. I was chief evangelist for the Cost of Freedom Project and Yo! Philly Votes.
If you build it, they will come. Right? Maybe. You have to market to your target audience. I partnered with national and local nonprofits to engage their members. I also used social networks and mainstream media to raise awareness of the civic apps.
A year later, I’m going back to where it all began -- Random Hacks of Kindness, which will be held at Drexel’s new ExCITe Center. I’m, well, excited to give an update on Yo! Philly Votes and perhaps pitch a project.
I’m also excited about how the hackathon platform and collaborative mindset can bridge the gap in teacher training and spark interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). While a lot of serious coding takes place during hackathons, it’s not all work. They’re actually fun. Folks play games and banter back and forth.
Hackathons or hackerspaces can help underrepresented minorities, particularly young black males, imagine a better future. They would be introduced to professionals who can connect STEM to their day-to-day realities and interests. Given the shifting demographics, it is an economic imperative that we inculcate interest in STEM subjects among black and Latino students.