Study: Experience of Black Doctoral Students Shows Need to Increase Diversity in STEM Fields

Lolly BowlerMaking the Grade: Utah works to improve its marks in STEM education Utah Business May 8, 2018News

Salt Lake City—The danger and risk of riding out a storm is symbolic of the decision black men make to pursue a graduate degree in engineering. They do so knowing they will face challenges, but the barriers described by black men who shared their experiences as part of a six-year study show how race was a greater obstacle than they expected.

Brian Burt, lead author and an assistant professor in Iowa State University’s School of Education, says it is a fitting analogy because these young men faced turbulent times as a result of structural inequalities and a lack of support from faculty and colleagues to weather the storm. Insight from the research is valuable in reversing the trend of underrepresented students and employees in all STEM fields, he said.

Burt and co-authors Krystal Williams, University of Alabama; and William Smith, University of Utah, interviewed 21 black men pursuing engineering graduate degrees at a research university. Several common themes detailed structural racism within the university, which led to unfair treatment, unwelcoming environments or isolation and unnecessary strain on black graduate students. These factors significantly affect a student’s ability to succeed, Burt said.

“There’s an assumption that students drop out of an engineering program because they couldn’t cut it. That the problem is an individual flaw,” Burt said. “Our research shows the main challenges these students faced were beyond their control. They were systemic, structural, historic and rooted in a legacy of science that is counterproductive for broadening student participation in STEM.”

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