Numerous studies and reports over the past several years highlight the risks posed to the American economy and national security if we fail to educate a sufficient science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce. Notable is the 2007 National Academy study, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” that calls for the nation to increase America’s talent pool by increasing the numbers of students pursuing STEM degrees in the United States. As pointed out in the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering 2008 report, Confronting the New American Dilemma, “The answer to the problem lives next door, around the block, or across town. Increasing the presence of underrepresented minority Americans in the study of STEM disciplines must be a primary part of the ultimate solution to the problems of the United States’ endangered competitiveness.”
Under represented minority (URM) Americans include African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, and Latinos. A look at the numbers will tell you how much unrealized potential we have. The current engineering workforce is 78 percent non-Latino white and 87 percent male. Contrast that to the U.S. population which is 66 percent white and 50 percnent male. The white population is projected to be 50 percent by 2050. Thus the population of white males, from which engineers are traditionally drawn, is on track to fall to 25 percent. Our high tech and industrial economy will not thrive if we continue to underuse 75 percent of the talent pool. Nationally, 13 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to URM students while these groups make up 28 percent of the U.S. population. Only 18 percent of these degrees are awarded to women. The current engineering workforce is not sustainable with business as usual practices.
The Cornell College of Engineering has long recognized the challenges and opportunities, and in 2004 created Diversity Programs in Engineering. Core to the mission of DPE is to improve the composition, inclusion, engagement and achievement of undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty from underrepresented groups. DPE provides a full spectrum of programs aimed at an audience ranging from high school students to faculty. The DPE programs span recruitment, academic and professional development, advising, mentoring, networking and community development. For example, the summer programs CURIE and CATLYST expose female, URM and other high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to university life and engineering through hands-on projects while providing graduate students and faculty an opportunity to learn more about diversity through direct engagement with the high school students. Hosting weekends and recruitment events organized by DPE and Engineering Admissions have played a significant role in increasing the representation of URM and women undergraduate students. In collaboration with the Cornell Graduate School, DPE also manages a number of graduate fellowships aimed at recruiting top URM talent. Mentoring and professional development opportunities for the Ph.D. students are aimed at enhancing the students’ achievement and at encouraging them to pursue academic positions where nationally, only 6 percent of engineering faculty are URM and 13 percent are women.
Many challenges remain both at Cornell and nationally. The graduation rates from Cornell Engineering of URM undergraduates, although improving and well above the national averages, remain approximately 6 percent below the college average, a result that is not acceptable. Although the percentage of URM undergraduates enrolled in engineering is on the rise, the percentage of African-American engineering students in the college remains low (2.3 percent of undergraduate students in fall 2011). This is not just a Cornell challenge, as nationally the percentage of undergraduate engineering degrees earned by URM students has been flat since about 1997. While the percentage of women in engineering at Cornell has grown from 28 percent to 35 percent over the past five years, placing our enrollment of women at almost twice the national average, the fraction of undergraduate degrees earned by women nationally has been dropping since 2005.
The challenges related to diversity and STEM education are significant, and at Cornell, are too large to be solved by the five person DPE staff alone. Every engineering student, faculty member and professional needs to be engaged in some way to increase the pace at which engineering moves toward a future of full inclusion. Reach out across differences when you put together lab, project or study groups. Take advantage of the many gatherings and discussions sponsored by the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, the Intercultural Center and other units designed to engage Cornellians from different cultures and backgrounds. Open your lab to visiting students and involve them in activities that connect your research to real world challenges they can appreciate. Reach out to elementary, middle and high schools, especially those in under-resourced communities, to help engage their students in fun and interesting science and engineering activities. Once you graduate, don’t forget that you had help along your journey. Perhaps you earned scholarships and / or you received financial aid. Give back to these scholarship programs, the University or the community organizations that supported you along the way. Support public education at every level so that all students have access to an enriching science and math curriculum. Take the opportunity to speak with current students and inspire them to continue with their STEM education. These are all simple, but meaningful actions that will help make Cornell Engineering and engineering as a whole, a more accessible and inviting option to students from all backgrounds.
Alan Zehnder is the Associate Dean for Diversity and Faculty Development in the College of Engineering and a Professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He may be reached at email@example.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.