Experts see progress but more work to be done in STEM outreach
Freddy Paige said that when he visited Clemson University as part of a summer program before his freshman year, he jumped directly into calculus, brushing aside suggestions that he start with pre-calculus.
“When I came to Clemson, I didn’t want to show weakness academically,” Paige said. “I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, and I didn’t want other people to catch onto that.”
Paige, who is from Murrells Inlet, took advantage of the help offered to him and by the end of the class was named “most likely to receive a Ph.D.” He went on to get his undergraduate degree in civil engineering and is on track to have his doctorate by August.
Paige’s experience with the summer program is one of many that illustrate what Clemson has done to engage minorities and females in science, technology, engineering and math. Minority and female representation in STEM fields is disproportionately low, a problem that President Obama made a priority in a five-year strategic plan released in 2013.
Clemson University President Jim Clements said increasing diversity in STEM fields is essential for South Carolina and the nation in order to maintain a global leadership role in innovation.
“This is central to our role as a land-grant, research university,” he said. “We have many successful programs that are making a difference, but we need to do more. Our commitment to increasing diversity is ingrained in the Clemson Forward strategic plan.”
Troubling statistics have raised concerns that vast swaths of the population are being left out of high-paying jobs in fast-growing job markets.
Blacks account for 11.5 percent of the U.S. population and hold 4.6 percent of the science and engineering jobs, according to last year’s report, “Revisiting the STEM Workforce,” from the National Science Board.
Meanwhile, women comprise about half of all employed college graduates but represent 28 percent of individuals with college degrees who are working in science and engineering occupations, the board found.
Advocates said that while minorities and women are most affected, they aren’t the only ones who lose out when they are underrepresented as engineers and scientists. No one knows what game-changing innovations could become a reality, if only a more diverse group of thinkers were educated in STEM fields, they said.
Serita Acker, the director of Clemson’s PEER and WISE programs, said that while progress has been made nationally, work remains to be done at Clemson and beyond.
“We need constant funding,” she said. “We need scholarships. We need to have outreach programs so that students will know about STEM fields.”
PEER and WISE are central to Clemson’s effort to put a dent in the statistics.
PEER, which stands for Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention, reaches out to minorities but welcomes all who would like to be involved. WISE is an acronym for Women In Science and Engineering.
The programs share a newly renovated headquarters in Freeman Hall. The smell of new carpet was still fresh on the first day of spring classes as a group of students sat on the new chairs and talked.
Students gather in the lounge throughout the school year to study and to connect with each other. It’s where students who may be the only minority or female in some of their classes can find a friendly face and someone to share tips, such as which books to buy and what classes to take.
Among the regulars is Dana Sweatman, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.
Sweatman said that she grew up liking to take things apart and put them back together and that she knew throughout high school she wanted to be an engineer.
Her family was supportive, so Sweatman didn’t know until she got to college that women were in short supply in engineering. She joined WISE to get to know people and later became a mentor to students younger than her.
Sweatman worked an internship as a process engineer last summer and has another internship lined up at an automotive company this summer. She has also helped organize the “We Do Math!” summer camp for high school girls as part of a WISE internship.
“WISE has played a big role,” Sweatman said of her success. “It really started escalating when I became a big sister mentor for WISE. That’s when I learned to talk to people and put myself out there.”
To create more success stories, Acker called for more outreach programs that make students aware of the opportunities in STEM as early as elementary school. Many students, especially those from families that have never been to college, will remain in the dark without such programs, Acker said.
Acker also sees a need to help students defray the cost of college.
“We need scholarships,” she said. “We need more corporations providing internships and co-ops. Working together with industry, we can make sure students get the funds needed to reach a degree.”
Acker said it’s also important to have programs, such as PEER and WISE, that support underrepresented students. The mentoring, academic help and opportunities to connect with industry can be transformative in a student’s college experience.
Kwasa Heath, a senior majoring in industrial engineering, joined WISE after enrolling at Clemson. Acker, who has been a source of encouragement for Heath, persuaded her to pursue an opportunity to get real-world experience through the Cooperative Education Program.
Heath landed the co-op and is now helping a Duncan manufacturer operate its assembly line more efficiently.
“That made a huge difference in my life,” Heath said. “That was something I wanted to do since my freshman year. Mrs. Serita said, ‘Why wouldn’t you be able to do it? What’s the worst that’s going to happen. You’ll get great interview experience.’”
Heath has become a co-op ambassador who encourages freshmen to pursue similar opportunities.
Like Heath, Paige went from mentee to mentor. His experience as a mentor and tutor with PEER made him comfortable with his ability to teach. And when the math summer program that gave him his start was cancelled due to a lack of funding, he went to work on developing a new summer program, PEER FIRE.
Paige now has his sights set on becoming a professor.
“I drank the Kool-Aid,” he said. “Like one of my professors once said, ‘I can’t really complain about the state of higher education if I’m not willing to jump into it and get my hands dirty. We need minority graduates, so I need to be someone to help them graduate.’”