STEM education: Disparity in opportunities needs to be addressed on multiple fronts

Dr. Mae Jemison, a physician and the first African American woman in space, once challenged an audience to “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” The daughter of a maintenance worker and a school teacher, Jemison knew the value of having someone believe in her potential at an early age.

For most students, the spark to achieve begins early in life and ignites when they are encouraged to reach for their dreams. Opportunities that expand their horizons are also essential. Studies have shown that students exposed at an early age to science, technology, engineering and math — what we commonly refer to as STEM — are more likely to seek careers in those fields. Yet, early exposure and relevant educational resources are often lacking for girls, minorities and low-income students.

Imbalance in resources

The disparity in resources is great. A number of households lack computer and Internet access. State or national level scientific competitions are often out of reach for students who live in economically challenged households. There is a deficit in early learning opportunities. Access to even the most basic school supplies confronts children who live in poverty.

In STEM fields, 74 percent of all workers are male and 26 percent are female. The underrepresentation of women is all the more troubling given that STEM-related fields are expected to grow by 8 million jobs over the next 10 years. Moreover, estimates say women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more on average than those in non-STEM occupations.

What we must do

In order for America to remain competitive, we must expose underrepresented groups to the exciting opportunities that a STEM education and career affords. This is also important for the economy of Northeast Ohio.

I recently co-introduced H.R. 5165, the Advancing Girls in STEM Act. This bipartisan legislation would increase exposure and awareness of STEM fields for elementary and middle school girls. It creates a competitive $20 million grant program for states that promote STEM education for young girls. States that apply would be eligible to participate in the program, based on four geographic regions, with two states from each region receiving $2.5 million.

In 2013, I also introduced the Project Ready STEM Act. This legislation addresses the lack of minority participation in STEM fields by funding after-school programs sponsored by community based affiliates. Latinos and African Americans lag behind both Caucasian and Asians in STEM fields. A study in 2012 showed African Americans comprised only 5 percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Legislation is but one pathway to address disparities in STEM education. Families have an important role in supporting and motivating their children. I believe all segments of our community must be engaged including the business community.

Don’t be limited by other people’s limited imagination. Find a way to spur involvement that best fits into your corporate culture. Investing in human capital is smart business. By investing early in our children, employers, families and indeed our entire nation will reap the benefits.