STEM Education and the Underrepresented Pipeline

There’s been a lot of discussion and debate about the lack of diversity in the technology workforce recently, particularly here in Silicon Valley.  In the industry, engineers and tech workers from minority communities are woefully underrepresented. This is bad for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of diversity of perspective and experience that is brought to new technologies that are needed to serve an ever more diverse society.

There are innumerable initiatives that have been launched to address this stunning shortcoming.  And yet we continue to be frustrated by the progress made to date.
I want to focus in on the so-called pipeline that should feed the system.  Simply put, there are not enough underserved youth choosing or able to go into STEM related fields out of high school.  It is not for lack of trying.  

In formal education we see great efforts such as the Oakland Promise, the Greene Scholars Program, and the state-funded Career Pathways Trust to name just a few. In after school and informal education settings we see all the wonderful work being done by Black Girls Code, Techbridge, The Hidden Genius Project, The YMCA, Northern California Girl Scouts, Code 2040, the Crucible and so many more. In addition, networks are forming to bring all these disparate initiatives together, such as the Gateways Eastbay STEM Network and the national STEM Ecosystems.

Yet while each of these initiatives shows promise and can point to some results, the problem persists…why?

We simply need to be honest about the fact that programs alone, while necessary, are not sufficient to make the systemic changes that are required.  The challenges and barriers that face our underserved youth are much deeper and complex than can be addressed by any program or programs, no matter their nominal effectiveness.  Whether it is lack of access to resources, family structures unable to give adequate support, unsafe environments or just generally communities disconnected from STEM, barriers to academic success can be multiple, and beyond the reach of many best efforts.  This is not to say we should give up trying, but rather we need to adjust our approach.  Here are two suggestions.

1. We need to recalibrate our expectations, and how we measure outcomes.  No single intervention, program, class, curriculum or teacher can be shown to be determinative of the future of any individual student’s outcomes and career.  Predictive causal chains (Program A for Student Y leads to Outcome Z) can never be shown due to the complexity of the matter at hand.  There are just too many variables in any individual student’s life, both for the individual as well as structural ones.  

And yet both schools and nonprofits are being asked to show the specific impact and metrics of their work to prove their efficacy, often linked to their funding. While it is possible to get measures on an anecdotal scale or in some cases on a macro scale, it is unrealistic to expect the impact data that is often sought. 

People are not algorithms or data sets that we believe we can understand through sufficient experimentation and evaluation, and yet we often demand just such predictability in the allocation of resources to effort to improve STEM education outcomes. An insistence on empirical data fails to recognize the emergent complexity of the issue, and may have the unintended consequence of limiting access to such programs.  While well-intentioned, this misses the mark.

2. True systemic change takes time.  Too many of the initiatives that I have described above are underfunded, while at the same time are being asked to do more.  Here I think both government and the philanthropic community can make some important, simple changes:. 
a)    Fund what clearly is working, as all of the programs I named above are.
b)    Stick with them for the long haul, making multiyear commitments to ensure they get a fair chance. 

Too many promising programs receive only startup or pilot project funding, but then are asked to rapidly become either self-sustaining, or scale to broader levels. To be frank, if these were self-sustaining and scalable enterprises they would be turning profits!  But they are not, nor by definition will they ever be…they seek to redress problems in the community that are deep and vexingly resistant to change. We need to give them the sustained support they deserve and stop trying to make them into something they are not.  The problems they are seeking to solve took a long time to emerge…the solutions will as well.

The pipeline challenge is but one in the complex array of issues surrounding the lack of work force diversity in technology…but if we don’t get about focusing on how to resolve it first, all the recruiting and culture change initiatives will be fighting a much tougher battle.

So…what do you believe?