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Study: Minorities, women often discouraged from entering engineering, science fields

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By CATHY BONNSTETTER

For The State Journal

Many female and minority chemists and engineers say they were discouraged from going into their chosen profession, according to a study released this week by Bayer Corp.

The company released results from its Bayer Facts of Science Education XV survey, "A View from the Gatekeepers," which was an online poll of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, department chairs at America's top 200 research institutions.

The survey showed that 40 percent of minority and female chemists and engineers polled said they were discouraged from studying STEM subjects. Forty-four percent said their college professors were the sources of the discouragement. 

"We wanted to find out if this discouragement is still occurring," said Mae Jemison, aphysician, astronaut, college professor and Bayer spokesperson for the company's Making Science Make Sense Initiative. "We found out it is." 

The majority of department chairs polled in this year's survey gave their institutions grades of C or lower when it came to recruiting and retaining women and minorities in STEM programs.  Bayer USA Foundation executive director Rebecca Lucore said the survey illustrated the gaps in the fields.

"The majority of the chairs were male, Caucasian and middle-age," she said. 

Bayer defined a minority student as someone who was Hispanic, African or American Indian. Majority students were white or Asian males.

STEM chairs said the number of women in their STEM courses has stayed steady. They also said they believed women came to college most prepared to tackle STEM subjects, while minorities came the least prepared.

Preparation aside, one-third of survey participants said they believed that minority students were less likely to graduate with a STEM degree than women or majority students. Women were considered as likely to graduate as their male counterparts.

Twenty-six percent of those polled said that they felt women did not really face any obstacles. Those who said they did cited lack of role models and stereotypes. The chairs said they felt minorities had even more to overcome. 

"The chairs felt the underrepresented minority students faced a lack of limited quality science in elementary and secondary school, as well as a lack of role models," Lucore said. 

Forty-six percent of the participants also noted they felt that while the traditional "weeding out" courses in the curricula were harmful to all students, women and minorities found them particularly devastating.

Participants felt that they curricula needed to stay the same, but that colleges needed to offer more tutoring for students.

Jemison said that STEM success can come down to self-confidence. 

"I had a hard time with some courses, but I felt I had a right to be there because I wanted to be there," she said. 

Jemison cited Harvey Mudd College in California where curriculum changes, while not resulting in a less vigorous course of study, resulted in the school graduating triple the number of women with computer science degrees since 2005.

"The most important things you can do to make sure students stay in the STEM subjects are to let them know we expect them to be there, expose them to what they need and give them real world experience," she said. "The chairs polled said these issues need attention from college presidents. That is where it needs to go next."

Bayer Corp. President and CEO Greg Babe said that now is the time to break down barriers in the STEM courses of study.

"2011 has been an interesting year," he said. "STEM is reaching critical mass in the public arena. Bayer Corporation's success, as does other corporations', success depends upon a highly trained workforce. Our current STEM professionals are preparing now for retirement. We need these people in the STEM fields; we need them to be competitive and creative."  

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