January 2009 Issue Volume 37 Issue 1

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Sociologist Addresses Issues
in Educating the Next Generation
of the Scientific Workforce


Willie Pearson, Jr.

Who will do science and engineering? This question brought academics, policy analysts, and representatives from both non- and for-profits to the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology’s (CPST) annual meeting on November 7, 2008 in Baltimore, MD. Among the presenters were a number of sociologists, including CPST Executive Director Lisa Frehill; Director of the Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Daryl Chubin; and the keynote speaker Willie Pearson, Jr., Georgia Institute of Technology.

Pearson’s speech began the meeting by addressing the issue of the day: Who will do science? More than a decade ago, the fields of science and engineering (S&E) were analyzed by a number of experts, and the findings were compiled in the book Who Will Do Science: Educating the Next Generation (1994), edited by Pearson and the late Alan Fechter. Scholars from wide ranging disciplines examined the adequacy and equity of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. Pearson revisited some of those issues raised almost 15 years ago to assess how the state of the S&E workforce has progressed and what is needed to prepare this generation.

Since Who Will Do Science, scholars have continued to debate whether the nation currently has an oversupply of scientists and engineers or if it is facing a shortage of scientific talent in the near future. While Pearson did not attempt to settle this particular question, he did provide evidence that real shortages still exist in the field among women and underrepresented minorities and that leakages exist throughout the pipeline. The intersection of race and gender was of particular importance to his analysis.

Science and Engineering Pipeline

Beginning the pipeline at the high school level, Pearson not only focused on non-completion rates, but also on the types of math and science courses taken by high school students. From 1994 to 2005, the percentage of students taking math and science courses has increased. Advanced math courses such as trigonometry and calculus, however, were still only taken by about 10% of high school graduates in 2005. Asians were overrepresented in all selected science and math courses, while African Americans and Hispanic students were underrepresented, especially in calculus courses where they account for only 5% of the total.

At the baccalaureate level, minority and foreign nationals’ representation in first-year engineering programs has remained fairly stable since 1990, while female representation has been in decline. Female participation among first-year students in engineering programs seemed to peak in the mid-1990s and has since declined to slightly more than 15%. Further along the pipeline, temporary residents make up a large percentage of some graduate programs. Social science and psychology programs had the lowest percentage of temporary residents enrolled, while underrepresented minorities equally comprised social science programs. Underrepresented minorities only made up 10% of the student population in engineering and computer science programs; however, temporary residents comprised nearly half of these programs.

Pearson ended his presentation by discussing S&E PhD degrees. A final leakage in the pipeline is evident at the doctoral-level and among faculty at research universities. Although increasingly more women and underrepresented women have obtained science and engineering doctoral degrees over the 10-year period following 1995, this demographic shift is not reflected on the faculties at these institutions. Chubin was a discussant at Pearson’s keynote session.

Other topics addressed at the CPST meeting included "21st Century Challenges for STEM Education: Who Is Being Left Behind?" and "21st Century Challenges in STEM Employment: Workers without Borders." And a sign that female representation may be increasing, thousands of women engineers turned out for the career fair held during the Society of Women Engineers’ (SWE) national conference in Baltimore, which was held in conjunction with CPST’s November 7 meeting. Academic institutions as well as non- and for-profit companies were represented at the career fair, providing many opportunities for women to start filling in the gaps in the STEM workforce discussed at this meeting. logo_small


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