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Research 
News On 
Minority Graduate 
Education 
(MGE)
Volume 1
Number 1

Inside this issue:
Wanted: A Better Way to Boost Numbers of Minority Ph.D.s

An Interview with Dr. Isiah M. Warner

The Non-SEM Field Choices of Black and Latino Undergraduates With the Aptitude for Science, Engineering and Mathematics Careers

Shirley Vining Brown "Citizen Scientist" 

A Message from Yolanda George

About Our Icon
 

Managing Editor:Yolanda S. George
Editor: 
Virginia Van Horne
Art Director: 
Ann Williams
 

Making Strides is a quarterly (April, July, October, and January) research newsletter published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Directorate for Education and Human Resources Program. Its purpose is to share information about minority graduate education (MGE) in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering. It is available in print and electronic format. Inquiries, information related to MGE, and all correspondence should be sent to the editor. 

Project Talent Flow:

The Non-SEM Field Choices of Black and Latino Undergraduates With the Aptitude for Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers 

By Beatriz Chu Clewell and Shirley Vining Brown 

This paper presents findings from the Alfred T. Sloan Foundation's Project Talent Flow, a research effort aimed at determining why black and Latino students with the aptitude to succeed in SEM majors are not pursuing careers in these fields. Talent Flow was initiated in response to growing concern about declining interest in scientific disciplines among students as well as the failure of major initiatives to attract minorities into these fields. 

Research for this project was guided by three major goals and several specific objectives. The first goal was to contribute information to the SEM literature about high ability minority students who have previously been overlooked as research subjects. Second, we wanted to identify the critical factors that could increase the number of underrepresented minorities in SEM careers. Our third goal was to use empirical research to inform educational policy makers. In order to achieve these goals, our objectives were to talk with high- ability black and Latino students and learn about critical experiences that influenced their choices of non-SEM degree majors; examine race/ethnic group and gender differences among these students; and discover which factors might influence high ability minority students to seriously consider SEM majors. 

Although surprisingly little re-search on high ability minority students can be found in SEM literature, certain studies have informed our efforts. These studies indicate that students' interest in a subject precedes career choices, and that to become a scientist or engineer students' interest must be maintained starting from the middle school years. Unfortunately, however, recent trends show that interest in SEM subjects is dwindling among pre-college students, and fewer college students are expressing an interest in scientific fields of study. As a result, enrollment rates in college-level science and engineering programs are declining. 

Minority students, who are at least as likely as white students to be interested in SEM career fields, are especially underrepresented in scientific careers and SEM college programs. Interest-ingly, this underrepresentation seems to occur at least in part because many minority students' aspirations shift from SEM to non-SEM career fields after entering college. Thus one guiding question for our research was: What happens before or during college that diverts the interests of black and Latino students away from SEM fields? 

A series of studies reflecting two general viewpoints suggest possible answers to this question. This first viewpoint has to do with structural factors; in other words, the field choices of minorities result from structural barriers in the social system of SEM education. Possible structural factors include issues related to preparation, curriculum, instruction, advising, and the availability of faculty role models and mentors. Adherents to this viewpoint suggest that if structural barriers are removed, minority representation in SEM fields will increase. The second general viewpoint cites psychosocial factors, meaning that decisions about choices of degree majors are internal to students. In this perspective, factors such as career aspirations, the need for achievement, the need for affiliation and encouragement, perceptions of ability, perceived utility of careers, family and career issues, and cultural orientations toward SEM fields have the largest influence on students' decision-making processes. 

A series of steps was taken to select appropriate interview sites for a detailed examination of these possible factors. Initially, five institutions with high concentrations of black and Latino students in the social sciences, business, or psychology were identified. Of these five institutions, two were located in the Far West and one each in the Northeast, Southwest, and Midwest. After a series of site visits, we narrowed our sites to three selective, public Research I universities (Far West, Northeast, and Southwest). Black and Latino nonscience majors were then selected as interview candidates using purposive sampling. The criteria considered in this process were: citizenship status, gender, declared majors in non-SEM fields, and a minimum of 550 on the SAT I test. These restrictions produced 190 interview candidates at the Northeast institution, 547 at the Far West institution, and 650 at the Southwest institution. Once responses were collected to a survey questionnaire mailing, these numbers were narrowed down to a total of 135 black and Latino students from all three sites, 86% of whom had SAT I math scores at 600 or above. 

After training with a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, in the fall of 1996, researchers conducted in-depth, one-on-one interviews with the selected 135 black and Latino students using the critical incident technique. This technique involves collecting information on significant incidents from knowledgeable individuals who are qualified to evaluate the relationship between what happened (the behavior) and the outcome of that event. Respondents were asked questions regarding their reasons for choosing current degree majors, experiences related to consideration of SEM majors, course-taking patterns, instructional experiences, interactions with working professionals in SEM, and interactions with peers in SEM fields. After collecting a sufficient number of incidents (1,871, of which 1,738 were usable), researchers then used an inductive classification procedure to build an inclusive picture of factors in career choice decisions. Finally, interviews were also conducted with 18 administrators and faculty members in science/ engineering and non-science/ engineering majors at the three institutions. 

Due to its specific focus this study does have some limitations. First, students interviewed here are not a random sample of all high-achieving black and Latino undergraduate non-SEM degree majors, and thus cannot be generalized to this population. Second, this study omits students who switched from SEM majors to non-SEM degree majors and/or those who chose to remain in SEM degree majors. 

Of the students interviewed, 81% are 21 years old or younger. Latino students comprised slightly over one-half of the sample and women outnumbered male subjects by a ratio of 1.45 to one. About 64.4 and 60.7%, respectively, of respondents' mothers and fathers are college educated; slightly more fathers than mothers are employed in professional occupations. In terms of major areas, the greatest proportion of students are majoring in the social sciences and professions (28.9% of blacks and 26.7% of Latinos), followed by the humanities (17.0%), liberal arts/other (14.1%), and psychology (13.3%). The great majority of students had taken four or more high school mathematics courses (86%), and nearly two-thirds took four or more science courses. Most rank themselves in the top 25% or higher in their college class. 

In terms of race and gender, some significant differences were identified. First, a much higher proportion of fathers of Latino students had less than a high school education (21.9%) as compared to fathers of black students (2.4%). This difference also exists between mothers of students; more than 70% of mothers of black students had earned undergraduate and graduate degrees as opposed to roughly one-half of Latino students' mothers. Furthermore, higher percentages of mothers of Latino students never worked or do not work outside of the home. In terms of majors, over three times as many Latino students than black students majored in the social sciences. 

Our analysis of the skills and preparation of the students interviewed show that both GPA and test scores are equal to or higher than the overall means at their respective universities. Their SAT I test scores also compare favorably to the national mean, outscoring it by 207 points in math and 55 points in verbal. Thus the Talent Flow students appear to be well prepared to handle college-level SEM courses, and have skills in mathematics and verbal areas that are higher than both university-level and national averages. 

Eight major domains of factors affecting the choices of non-SEM degree fields emerged from our analysis using the critical incident technique. These include: people-related influences; course-related influences; respondent-related influences; career-related influences; media influences; social issues influences; extracurricular activities; and other influences. Among these, the major factors are related to teaching practices and course or curriculum issues (structural) as well as teacher interest and encouragement, family influences, and student perceptions of ability (psychosocial). We conclude from our identification of these domains that an explanation for the failure of high ability minority students to pursue SEM majors lies in factors that represent BOTH structural and psychosocial viewpoints. 

Our investigation of these domains also clarifies the issue of explaining why minority students turn away from SEM fields after entering college. For instance, although many students made positive comments about high school SEM teachers, the majority reacted negatively to the poor quality of college level instruction. Students who enjoyed SEM courses in high school were also alienated by the restrictiveness and difficulty of college-level SEM work. In contrast, many students were impressed with their non-SEM college experiences. Similarly, while students felt encouraged by non-SEM teachers and professors to enter non-SEM fields, they sensed that SEM professors did not offer similar encouragement. 

Other psychosocial factors also play a role in students' decisions to choose non-SEM major fields. Students generally did not feel pressured by family members to major in SEM fields, and in some cases family members actively supported students' non-SEM majors. Students also perceived themselves as being less talented in SEM fields, and thus chose non-SEM areas to escape becoming what they viewed as below average. 

There are several implications of this study for policy and practice in the areas of instruction, curriculum, student support, and general science and technology literacy. In terms of the policy and practice of instruction, we have found that the effort and expense involved in developing intervention programs to attract minority students will yield little return unless the teaching of SEM subjects undergoes reform, especially at the college level. These reforms should include: modification of doctoral training programs; development/modification of in-service training training materials; development of teaching standards that include indicators of successful teaching skills; and development/modification of recruitment and hiring policies to identify faculty and TAs who have successful teaching abilities. In terms of curriculum policy, we recommend the implementation of hands-on activities that involve learning through doing; high school curriculum reform that would connect the course content of SEM disciplines to broader societal issues; and modified testing procedures in introductory SEM college courses that reflect fair and consistent grading standards. Student-related policy reform should include the establishment of Uri Treisman's workshop training model* as an intervention for undergraduate students and the initiation of advising system reforms that help students become more informed about studying SEM fields. Finally, general science and technology literacy reforms are needed in the form of informal television/news programming that highlights minority scientists as well as middle and high-school level emphasis by teachers and guidance counselors on the societal benefits of and opportunities in SEM fields. 

Excerpted from Brown, Shirley V. and Clewell, Beatriz C. Project Talent Flow: The Non-SEM Field Choices of Black and Latino Undergraduates With the Aptitude for Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers. Final report to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, January 1998.



*Treisman, Uri. "Studying Students Studying Calculus: A look at the lives of minority mathematics students in college." College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 23, No. 5, Nov. 1992, pp. 362-372.
 

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