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Schools should drop the sink-or-swim mentality and fire up undergraduates' imaginations with the real-world problems they might solve through science.
By Philip J. Hanlon and Sian Leah Beilock
University presidential transitions can create unexpected alliances. And so, too, with the two of us, as a mathematician (Phil) prepares to hand off the presidency of Dartmouth to a cognitive scientist who studies math anxiety (Sian).
In the process, we have discovered many things on which we agree, and chief among them is this: Our nation must find more effective ways to imbue young people with the curiosity, confidence, and joy to pursue the study of math — as well as science, technology, and engineering, the three other vectors on the compass known as STEM.
First, we as a nation need to be honest with ourselves about the depth of the problem. Education leaders bemoan the precipitous drop in math test scores during the COVID years. But the virus, however deadly, is a convenient scapegoat. National Assessment of Educational Progress scores have lingered at below-proficient levels for more than a decade in math, despite billions in federal funding and new policies focused on lagging academic success.
That the persistent underperformance in math remains a defining challenge — especially for women and students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, despite decades of effort — is underscored by, well, the math: While Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Alaska Natives represent 33 percent of the US population, they receive only 24 percent of all science and engineering degrees awarded to US citizens and just 13 percent of doctoral degrees. Meanwhile, women earn just 22 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering and are similarly underrepresented at the master's and doctorate degree level in engineering, computer, science, and math.
Those stark statistics only begin to illuminate the ripple effect of that disproportionate representation. Research shows that innovation and discovery are powered by the fuel of fresh insight. And the spark of combustion is often ignited by the collective efforts of scientists from widespread backgrounds raising, and then pursuing, a range of questions.
At a moment when job opportunities in STEM fields are surging, what can be done to change a persistent problem that hasn't already been tried? There needs to be new access points to open up and diversify the STEM talent pipeline, as well as ensure that everyone — regardless of race, gender, or background — who wants to study a STEM subject or embark on a career in a growing STEM field has clear paths to do so.
First, teachers and parents need to acknowledge the importance of mindset in students' performance in math and science. Rose Vukovic, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, has explored math anxiety in a sample of first-graders at New York City elementary schools in lowerincome neighborhoods. She found that their negative perceptions of their abilities in math — as manifested in stomach aches, headaches, and quickening heartbeats — had a negative impact on their performance.
Other research has documented how similar instances of stress felt by elementary school teachers themselves (most of whom are women), as well as parents, rub off on students — leading to a population of math-anxious young people. But when students enter math, not through the traditional front door of math class, but through fun puzzles to practice problem-solving, their math performance improves, as does the belief in the importance of math from the adults in their lives.
At the undergraduate level, we as educators need to bulldoze longstanding barriers to entry — like introductory STEM courses — which have been shown to drive down underrepresented minority student participation in STEM. Instead, schools should drop the sink-or-swim mentality and fire up undergraduates' imaginations with the real-world problems they might solve through science. Students get more jazzed by puzzles and practice problems than the traditional math and science classes, the latter of which often have a new vocabulary load more similar to learning a foreign language than most other disciplines. Once engaged, educators can set about arming them with the technical terms and other tools to do their work.
Case in point: Undergraduates at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering first earn a bachelor of arts degree, with its foundation in the broader liberal arts, before going on to earn a bachelor's degree in engineering. In 2016, Thayer was among the first undergraduate engineering programs in the nation to graduate a majority-female class, and the ratio of women to men has held steady since. Many of those students report that entry-level courses, such as design thinking, which weaves in collaboration, teamwork, and an emphasis on empathy, are important in enticing them to study engineering.
But that's not enough. Fresh efforts must be supplemented with support for those who want to study STEM. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore has done this through summer programming, along with intensive mentoring and cohort building and early research lab placement. Similarly, the E.E. Just Dartmouth Adventures in STEM program is a five-day series of preorientation summer mini-courses taught by Dartmouth professors that opens up the young minds from underrepresented backgrounds to the breadth, possibilities, and excitement of science. Barnard does something similar through its Science Pathways Scholars Program, and the outcomes are clear. More than 80 percent of Pathways Scholars students have gone on to major in STEM.
Our nation needs to make new, targeted investments at scale — drawing on philanthropy, private sector companies, and universities themselves — toward the goal of creating new doors to increase representation in STEM majors, graduate, and postgraduate programs and professions. On Dec. 6, Dartmouth announced Dartmouth STEM-X, a $100 million program that will increase existing efforts, and provide a launchpad for others, toward the goal of preparing and placing talented young people from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM-related advanced degree programs, policy roles, and industry.
We cannot summon a solution and eliminate the deep divide in representation in the STEM fields by waving a magic wand. But we believe the problem is an equation that is eminently solvable, especially if our efforts as educators — at all levels — can create engaging ways to persuade a diverse group of students to walk through one of many new and inviting front doors and then to support them along the way.
Philip J. Hanlon is president of Dartmouth College. Sian Leah Beilock is president of Barnard College and will become Dartmouth president in July 2023.
NOTE: This article was originally published in The Boston Globe on December 22, 2022 and is reprinted here with the Globe's permission.