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Be Not Discouraged in the Quest for STEM Education

In a 2010 study by The Bayer Corporation, it was reported that many minorities as well as women have been discouraged from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Further, this report identifies the American educational system as the culprit.

The Bayer Facts of Science Education XIV survey polled 1,226 female African-American, Hispanic and American Indian chemists and chemical engineers about their childhood, academic and workplace experiences that play a role in attracting and retaining women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields.

According to the report, 40 percent of today’s women and other underrepresented minority chemists and chemical engineers in the United States were discouraged from pursuing a STEM career at some point during their academic careers.

Those surveyed said that this happened mostly while in college and that the person most likely to discourage them was their instructor. I found this study very interesting because I too experienced this as an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in computer science.

I was met with opposition from my advisor when I inquired about pursuing a double major in computer science and business. I needed his advice on adding the business major and to plan my route to register for the courses to reach my goal. I was already majoring in computer science and I wanted to add the business major which would result in my receiving degrees in both.

He told me that he did not think I had what it took to complete a degree in computer science, let alone be successful at any attempt to double-major.  I remember thinking to myself “you are able to tell all of that about me from grades on a piece of paper but grades do not measure heart or attitude.” I also wondered why my advisor was not helping me with my goal. Instead he tried to persuade me to change my major to one less challenging and to forget about the idea of double majoring altogether.

I politely explained to him that I appreciated his feedback but I would expect him to help me file the needed paperwork to be registered as a double major and if he could direct me to an appropriate advisor in the business major.

I graduated in 1986 with a double major in computer science and business administration, despite this discouragement.  I have enjoyed a very successful career in computer science and business. I must admit that I was somewhat surprised to learn that this kind of thing is still happening.

Was it personal for my advisor? Did he think he was doing a good thing by giving me this advice? I do not know what the answer is, but what I do know is that it was not helpful. Now that I am studying the shortage of African-American males in computing, it is interesting to discover the myriad of social practices that lead to this situation.  It is more about attitude than aptitude and attitudes can be damaged by such discouragement.

How many young men and women have experienced this discouragement and decided to change majors because of it? Do not fall victim to this type of discouragement. Be strong and move forward toward your goals. If your advisor or instructor is discouraging you find a new one. Find one that is positive and encouraging and who will help you to reach your academic goals.

6 thoughts on “Be Not Discouraged in the Quest for STEM Education

  1. I’m a Black female. I have had counselors in high school and professors in college (both white men) discourage me from going to college and choosing a career in organizational psy.

    We have to encourage our children to know that they have no limits. You can’t assume that other people want whats best for your children.

  2. During my senior year in high school, my parents and I went on a college visit to a white state school in Southern Illinois. When I arrived the students and parents were separated for different orientations and events. Well, during my time we had to fill out our classes for the fall, a preliminary step to guarantee we would have what we needed and begin on task.

    At the time, I was interested in biology/pre-medicineas a major; wanting to become a pediatic doctor. Well, while completing my schedule (Remember I had not yet begun my college matriculation. I was still in high school). I was told that I would have to attend summer school after my first year of college. This was told to me, while I over heard the same counselor tell my, white, male counterpart to enroll in the very same classes that I was just discouraaged to take. Needless to say, I inquisitively snapped on said counselor and walked out of the room and found my parents. I had them pulled out of their “parental” meeting and I told them what happened. We all inquired about this with the head of the days’ activities and met face to face with that counselor. She was stumbling and fumbling with her answer as to why she was not advocating for me but for the white, male student. She fell silent and and was unable to defend her position on the matter.

    I was discouraged and angry that day and decided not to be treated any less than others. I stood up for myself and my parents supported me and my right to do so.

    Needless to say, I did not attend that school, but Jackson State Universiy an HBCU located in Jackson, Mississippi; for both undergrad and graduate school. While I am a Dr. it is in Urban + Regional Planning, not in medicine. I decided to heal the community one block at a time instead.

    We must empower our young people to do the same and then to “GO FOR THEIRS!”

    1. Dr. Deborah,

      I could not agree more. This is more as an educator as well as a technologist. I have been a practicing software engineer for 25 years, I do not focus on teaching our people these skills. I focus on changing their mindset. Often times their lack of confidence was given to them. Sometimes deliberately and sometimes it is unintentional but the consequences are the same. My work is devoted to removing such conditions and helping to provide them with the role models and confidence needed to pursue these careers.

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