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Encouraging Minorities and Women to Enter STEM Fields

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The need to increase the number of individuals from underrepresented communities in technical careers has long been recognized by those in the science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) field. But making employers hire more women and minorities is also a needed component to strengthening our nation’s ability to protect itself.

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For instance, there are over 500,000 jobs in the cybersecurity field that are not being filled, according to the (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce Study of 2019. By improving inclusivity and diversity levels in tech, that could significantly strengthen our country’s security.

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, underscored the significance of diversity and inclusion in her 2019 Congressional testimony. She noted that “STEMM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine] has such a big impact on our shared prosperity and security, now more than ever, we need to take action, not only for the benefit of women and underrepresented minorities, but for the benefit of the nation and the world.”

Black History Month: A Time to Be Inspired by the Accomplishments of African American Scientists

Black History Month is a good time to remember the contributions of African American scientists such as Dr. George Warren Reed and Dr. J Earnest Wilkins Jr., who devoted their efforts to the Manhattan Project. Ms. Carolyn B. Parker, an African American research scientist who worked on the Dayton Project, is another important historical figure.

The high-level scientific research performed by these scientists and others like them led the development of our nation’s nuclear research and atomic weaponry. Notably, Dr. Wilkins, Jr. not only received a doctorate by age 19, but also went on to receive the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal from the U.S. Army. He has three scientific phenomena bearing his name and all dealing with subatomic particle motion: the Wilkins Effect, the Wilkins Spectra and the Wigner Wilkins Spectra.  

Limited early exposure to technical fields can contribute to a lack of youth interest in pursuing degrees and careers in STEM fields. But a multifaceted approach can inspire students’ interest in entering the STEM field. For example, incorporating a STEM speaker series, hosting summer camps and developing curriculum with a focus on diversity are all ways students’ interest can be cultivated early.

Learning Lessons from the Past

It is important that we all continue to push the needle of inclusivity to ensure that technical fields are not only attractive to everyone, but also have a culture of inclusion. We should definitely learn lessons from what has happened in the past.

In 1943, for example, the federal government made the decision to relocate the Manhattan Project from Chicago, Illinois, to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, forming what is known Oak Ridge Laboratory. Unfortunately, African American scientists such as Dr. Reed and Dr. Wilkins, Jr. were prevented from moving forward with their research because of the existing Jim Crow laws of the South.

These ground-breaking pioneers, however, went on to serve the scientific community in various other roles, including space exploration. But their exclusion from the initial Oak Ridge work serves as reminder of how a nation can lose valuable knowledge if diversity is not embraced in scientific communities.

Businesses and Schools Should Take the Time to Expose Students to Technical Jobs

Businesses and schools in disadvantaged communities should develop and strengthen their efforts to expose students to technical occupations, using activities such as career days, mentorships, and job shadowing. Similarly, women and minorities at companies should be encouraged to participate in STEM outreach, allowing students to see the STEM field as a viable option.

School districts have the opportunity to strengthen the role of integrating technology in their curricula by ensuring teachers have the skills and computing resources needed to introduce technology as a core subject, starting at the elementary school level. In addition, co-curricular opportunities should be available as students enter high school. Students could use mentors and experiential learning to become engaged in the STEM field outside of the classroom.

Furthermore, corporate and educational partnerships could be introduced into schools to increase students’ exposure to STEM fields. These partnerships can be another tool to address and defeat the barriers to success often placed in the path of students who are born into or reside in disadvantaged communities.

Atomic weapons, scientific research and cybersecurity are essential in protecting our nation and its citizens. All of these fields have one common and constant element: the need for highly skilled individuals.

Getting more minorities and women into STEM fields is a collaborative mission we must all embrace. Black History Month is a good inspiration for improving the diversity of the scientific community and to encourage more people to seek STEM jobs.

Dr. Kevin Harris is the Program Director for Cybersecurity, Information Systems Security and Information Technology. With over 25 years of industry experience, Dr. Harris has protected a variety of organizational infrastructure and data in positions ranging from systems analyst to chief information officer. His career encompasses diverse experiences both in information technology and academia. His research and passion are in the areas of cybersecurity, bridging the digital divide, and increasing diversity in the tech community. As an academic leader, Dr. Harris has instructed students at various institutions, including community colleges, HBCUs, public, private, graduate, undergraduate and online. He has trained faculty from multiple institutions in the area of cybersecurity as part of a National Science Foundation multistate CSEC grant.

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