A Moonshot for Every Kid
The exclusion of diverse people from engineering and computer science is a blind spot in US national security—and one the nation must work to fix.
The demographics of the United States are changing, but these changes are not reflected in the diversity of students pursuing degrees in engineering and computer science. Meanwhile, more than 700,000 computer and math jobs than existed in 2020 will need to be filled by 2030—far outpacing the number of degrees currently awarded.
The intersection of the country’s growing dependence on technology with a clear shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) talent is fast becoming a national security issue that must be addressed urgently.
In an April 30, 2021, speech, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III emphasized that sophisticated information technologies, including quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and edge computing, will be key differentiators in future conflicts. The United States risks not having enough talent to drive innovative STEM research, development, and deployment in the coming years. It is imperative that people of color and those from other underrepresented groups become part of the STEM enterprise—not only to advance emerging technologies critical to maintaining American leadership and national security, but also to ensure that new technologies and their potential implications are developed with the needs of diverse communities in mind.
You might think of this as a replay of 1957’s Sputnik moment, when the United States suddenly realized the need to invest in science education to avoid losing the space race with the then-Soviet Union. Today, by contrast, the country must make an unprecedented investment in diversifying STEM fields to help protect democracy, citizens’ quality of life, and the overall health of the nation.
To nurture the talent that can help keep the country safe through the next 75 years, we propose a three-pronged approach that changes the way gatekeepers influence the field, makes more advanced high school courses and college support available for all students, and provides opportunities for young people to build confidence that they can solve real-world problems. These steps are designed to ensure that increasingly diverse voices and minds are represented in engineering and computer science and can thus contribute to solving our ever-evolving efforts to keep the country safe and secure.
Understanding the deficit
Although the demographics of the United States are shifting significantly, with Americans identifying as Hispanic/Latinx rising from 12.6% of the US population in 2000 to an estimated 30.2% in 2050, Hispanic/Latinx and Black students remain significantly underrepresented among those who receive both undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees. Gaining greater participation from these groups could not only increase the workforce to maintain a competitive edge; it would bring broader representation to the deployment of future technologies.
There is general agreement that the problem of underrepresentation begins early—in K–12 education. Among high schools, a status of separate-but-not-equal has been a persistent problem. Access to advanced math courses in high school varies according to a student’s race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status; a 2016 study noted that “just a third of high schools where at least three-fourths of students were Black and Latino offered calculus.” Given that math is traditionally seen as a gatekeeper course for college STEM majors—the highest math course a high school senior takes has a major influence on both college acceptance and college choice—it comes as no surprise that, at the college level, these disparities continue in engineering and computer science.
But inequities still exist even when Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous students attend K–12 schools that have programs specifically for advanced students. Since 1998, only 2% of Black students and 3% of Hispanic students have been enrolled in gifted and talented programs in US public schools as compared to 4% of white students and 6% of Asian students.
Differences in math skills and test scores for those in different demographic groups do not explain this gap in enrollment. Rather, the race of their teachers accounts for the difference: Black students are referred to gifted programs at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers. This pattern may be rooted in the ways a teacher’s race influences expectations of the students he or she teaches. One study concluded that when evaluating the same Black student, white teachers expect significantly less academic success than do Black teachers. These findings suggest that, by extension, if the engineering and computer science college professoriate does not fully represent the demographics of the students they teach, the same result is likely when it comes to student success and expectations.
In other words, engineering and computer science departments in colleges and universities are also a part of the problem. Just as systemic inequities persist in the K–12 educational system when it comes to STEM, related inequities appear at the college level. Although Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous students are just as likely to identify STEM areas as a desired major when entering college, their average completion rate for STEM degrees is not on par with their peers from other racial groups. Among the factors identified as contributing to this gap are struggles in introductory math courses and the mental stress of navigating an environment that feels unwelcoming.
In this way, college-level inequities extend and magnify the inequities of math education, gifted education, and reduced expectations in high school. While many observers claim that higher education shouldn’t be expected to fix the problems of K–12, it may follow some of the same inequitable practices as well as introducing new challenges. As engineering academics trained to solve complex problems, we can and should do better than make excuses for the status quo.
An urgent agenda for change
Diversifying STEM is not merely a question of shifting pedagogy; it is an urgent necessity in our technologically fluid landscape. With nearly every aspect of life being tightly coupled with artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and complex engineering systems, the United States cannot afford to sit back and wait for a computer science-based crisis to hit. The country is already witnessing the rising potential for such a catastrophe, with malicious attacks on energy facilities, hospitals, and cities becoming more frequent.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States embarked on rapid educational reform to regain technological ground in the space race. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided federal funding to “insure trained manpower of sufficient quality and quantity to meet the national defense needs of the United States.” Subsequent transformations in science and engineering education trained new generations of engineers and scientists who continued to power the economy through the dot-com boom of the 1990s.
But, this time around, will the education system be able to train engineers quickly? If the country can’t even retain the population of college and university students already interested in engineering and computer science, it’s unreasonable to expect better during a crisis. Is it wise to wait until a triggering event puts a spotlight on the deficit of STEM talent as a national problem?
We argue that universities must recommit now to their fundamental mission of focusing on the public good and providing for the needs of society. Universities must ensure that they institute an engineering and computing educational transformation that provides every interested mind an equitable seat at the table.
To bring about necessary changes quickly—by meeting the needs of today’s diverse students and preparing them to enter the STEM workforce—requires three significant changes. These changes constitute a push-pull strategy to remove barriers caused by widespread educational inequities and biases, while motivating students to stay in the field by empowering them to solve global issues. First, STEM education needs to eradicate expectation differences (or at least the behaviors associated with them) among gatekeeper courses, faculty, and advisors. Secondly, the system must increase the availability of math and science courses to accelerate learning to overcome inequities present in students’ pre-college preparation. Finally, science and engineering curricula must be focused on experiential opportunities, so that students gain a sense of confidence in their use of knowledge to solve real-world problems.
Programs to eradicate expectation differences. There are two ways to eradicate expectation differences: either change perceptions, or change people. To change perceptions, studies have shown that having resilience in the face of academic and social challenges is essential for success. For example, researchers have provided clear evidence that students who believed that intellectual abilities were qualities that could be developed—versus qualities that were intrinsic (i.e., the “born an engineer” syndrome)—had greater course completion rates in difficult math courses. Importantly, this finding held up whether students inherently believed intellect and resilience could be learned or were taught it. In other words, establishing programs that embed psychological interventions and train faculty and advisors in fostering these can-do mindsets among future engineers and computer scientists can be an effective step on the path toward eradicating expectation differences.
A second pathway to eradicating expectation differences is to ensure that the demographics of faculty and advisors better correlate with student demographics. Studies have found that engineering departments that awarded more bachelor’s degrees to women African American/Black undergraduate students than other departments did were more likely to employ more African American/Black women faculty (and vice versa). One national initiative that is attempting to solve the representation problem is the National Science Foundation’s NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion Across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) program, which focuses on enhancing US leadership in discoveries and innovations by increasing participation of individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM education and careers.
Increased availability of courses to accelerate learning. Because of gaps in their high school curricula, many college students struggle in their sophomore year when they take their first discipline-specific engineering courses. Although it’s long been common for engineering colleges to host summer bridge programs for pre-first-year students to enrich their experience as they matriculate into engineering majors, we believe this is insufficient. In addition, initiatives should be more specific to the needs of students and more supportive throughout the entire school year to accelerate learning and overcome inequities in pre-college preparation.
One such effort was launched in the summer of 2021 for rising sophomores in the College of Engineering at The Ohio State University. Its ACCELERATE (Academic Enrichment and Career Development for Undergraduates) program was conceived as a combined academic and experiential enrichment program designed to address knowledge gaps especially among historically underrepresented students in engineering and to support students’ progress through the engineering curriculum. Similarly, the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Challenge program is a five-week summer residential program that helps “prepare incoming first-year students for a successful college career by equipping them to address the 7Cs: computer science, chemistry, calculus, communication, career development, cultural competency, and community service.”
However, as we examine the quality and type of courses universities need to offer to overcome existing inequities, educators must go beyond the one-and-done mentality. One summer experience, one remedial calculus course, or one extra hour of tutoring—as helpful as they are—is likely not enough to eradicate years of educational injustices.
Experiential learning opportunities. Learning through experience involves the process of hands-on learning or learning by doing. When students are learning the basics of programming, for example, they read about code grammar or syntax; but unless they are personally plugging away at it, compiling and debugging, laughing in relief as they finally discover that missed semicolon, they really are not in a position to learn effectively. Collaborating with the US Department of Defense’s National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) is one path for providing experiential opportunities to students based on solving real-world problems. NSIN is focused on solving national security problems by collaborating with academic partners such as Ohio State and Georgia Tech. In 2020, a group of five biomedical engineering students at Georgia Tech collaborated with NSIN to find ways to test the effects of battlefield blast exposure on and its correlation with traumatic brain injury.
No longer is an unprecedented investment in diversifying STEM fields simply something that would be nice to have; rather, such investment addresses a looming workforce need and national security issue. Disparaties in matriculation and especially graduation rates of students from underrepresented groups in engineering and computer science pose a major risk to national welfare. If engineering is to continue its mission of creating new technologies, businesses, innovations, and solutions to address the world’s problems—and help solve them before they become full-blown crises—educators must act now to invest in all potential future engineers and especially those from underrepresented groups who have not previously received the broad range of support they need and deserve for success.
The moonshot we are proposing is quite simple: give every kid a fair shot, regardless of zip code or skin color. It is not only the right thing to do, it’s also critical to the security of our nation.