The Link Between STEM Training and Civil Rights


Sixty years after a landmark Supreme Court decision, education in the United States remains separate and unequal for many.

Securing America’s future in science, technology, engineering and math fields requires more than expanding opportunities for women. Promoting interest and opportunities for minorities also should be a national imperative, particularly as more than half of children born in the United States today are of minority descent.

That was the topic of a symposium at the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday that sought to find solutions for providing minorities and women with proven pathways for obtaining good jobs and a higher standard of living through STEM education.

The event, hosted by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, highlighted that now, 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, education in the United States remains separate and unequal for many minorities, children with disabilities and those living in high-poverty areas. STEM is one area that has great potential to reverse that trend and help the United States maintain a competitive edge, experts noted.

“The era of pick-and-shovel jobs is gone,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Those who would support themselves in the 21st century need a high school diploma and more -- career training, an associates degree, or ideally, a four-year college degree.”

The symposium explored the need to pique girls' and minority children's interest in science and math; the importance of expanding access to Advanced Placement courses and broadband access; and the need for more technology-competent teachers.  

The Obama administration’s five-year strategic plan for STEM education shows that only 2.2 percent of Hispanics and Latinos, 2.7 percent of African Americans and 3.3 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives have earned a first university degree in natural sciences or engineering by age 24. Women represent less than 20 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in areas like computer science and engineering, and hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.

“We have only 21 percent of students in high school STEM programs who are girls, and we know girls are about half of the kids in high school,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. “We are not serving our girls period in STEM.”

David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, spoke about programs like My Brother’s Keeper that aim to unlock opportunities for boys and young men of color.

Lhamon urged symposium participants as well as government agencies, policymakers, educators and the public to visit, the Education Department’s civil rights data collection website, to analyze student equity and opportunity. She also stressed the need for continued funding for programs like Race to the Top, which provides competitive grants to states willing to innovate and reform K-12 education, in helping open up opportunities in STEM to minority students and women.

“We should be asking questions about whether disparities present in the data warrant further action and warrant changes at our schools and districts in our state,” Lhamon said. “We should be doing better than offering calculus to a few said students; we should be doing better than offering physics to a few said students. We need to be sure we have access to teachers that are prepared for them and schools that are prepared for them. … We should be one joined community in demanding civil rights for all of our kids.”

(Image via wavebreakmedia/