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Achieving Liftoff: A New Generation

For mechanical engineering major Madeline Sola '04 the path to WPI began in middle school when her science teacher urged her to join a pre-engineering program. Now her sights are set on a career at Pratt & Whitney designing commercial and military jet engines.

Unless the next crop of scientists and engineers includes more women and minorities, experts say America will lose its competitive edge. In this special report we examine the "pipeline problem" and find out how WPI is part of the solution.

By Laurance S. Morrison, Photography by Patrick O'Connor

On a hot summer day, 16 middle school students wait anxiously for ice cream--and a lesson in communication. Stephanie Blaisdell, director of WPI's Office of Diversity and Women's Programs, asks the students to write down the steps for making a sundae as her undergraduate assistants open tubs of ice cream and a smorgasbord of toppings.

"Put on rubber gloves," Blaisdell reads from one student's paper. Assistants hang gloves on their ears or place them on their heads.

"Take some ice cream and put strawberries on it." Scoops of ice cream plop onto the table and a pint of strawberries is dumped on top.

"Add chocolate sauce." One assistant ladles chocolate on another's blouse. The young students double over with laughter, but they also get the point: that in science and engineering, it's important to describe things precisely.

In the end, the students get their sundaes--and the message that science can be fun. They are participants in Strive Junior, one of a full menu of WPI programs designed to excite kids about science, math and engineering--subjects too many assume are boring or too difficult.

"Research shows that traditional ways of teaching math and science are exclusive, and so it takes some education to overcome that." --Stephanie Blaisdell, director, WPI's Office of Diversity and Women's Programs

The Shrinking Talent Pool

The premise goes like this: Women and underrepresented minorities (along with persons with disabilities) represent about two-thirds of American workers. In contrast, the science, engineering and technology (SET) workforce is dominated by white males--nearly 68 percent. This lack of diversity compounds the problem of an already alarming shortfall of people going into these professions.

Many educators at WPI and elsewhere regard a more inclusive pipeline as indispensable to the healthy growth of the quantitative professions. They suggest that it's also an issue of fairness--of affording females and minorities the same encouragement that white males receive so that more of them choose to prepare for SET careers.

And, as William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, noted in an address to the WPI community last spring, it's about missed opportunities. "At a fundamental level," he said, "men, women, ethnic minorities, racial minorities and people with handicaps experience the world differently. Those differences in experiences are the 'gene pool' from which creativity springs." Without diversity, Wulf added, "we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result, we pay an opportunity cost--a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented."

This past summer, participants in GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science) studied the water quality in Institute Pond.

In its 2000 report, the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development concluded that "unless the SET workforce becomes more representative of the general U.S. workforce, the nation will undercut its own competitiveness."

More simply put, we need to devote time and energy to cultivating future scientists. We need to build a better "pipeline" to deliver the product when we'll need it most. The Council on Competitiveness found that 70 percent of American CEOs pointed to the skills shortage as the number one barrier to growth. "Unless U.S. firms can create 'homegrown' technicians ... companies will move their operations abroad or import talent from overseas."

The power structure couldn't agree more. A recent survey by the American Management Association of 1,000 of its members found that a mix of genders and ethnic backgrounds on senior management teams correlated with superior performance in annual sales, market share and worker productivity, all leading to a stronger bottom line.

What's not so simple is tapping into the enormous potential of groups that traditionally have been left behind. Just as major league sports build for the future with farm teams, the fields of science and engineering need to be proactive about cultivating the talent pool. Otherwise, they'll be left with an empty bench in the years to come.

Total U.S. Workforce
Science, Engineering and Technology Workforce

A narrow range of citizens is now making its way through the science, engineering and technology (SET) pipeline. The SET workforce is composed mainly of white males, with small percentages of women and underrepresented minority groups. (1997 data)

Bridging the Gap

Madeline Sola '04 is an example of what happens when the pipeline works. In middle school, a teacher noticed her advanced math and science skills. She encouraged Sola to join the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program.

In after-school sessions, students built Popsicle-stick bridges and studied probability using M&Ms. "It piqued my interest so much," says Sola, "I remained a member through high school and even took part in summer science camps."

In WPI's Strive Jr. program, college-age counselors help minority middle school students realize that science and math can be fun.

Sola was encouraged at another critical point in the pipeline: her high school technology teacher suggested she join a robotics team. Several opportunities spun off from that, including Sola's entree into an internship program at Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut. Also through the team Sola learned about WPI's Strive program for minority students, which ultimately convinced her to enroll at WPI.

The pipeline worked for Madeline Sola. The problem is that students like her are too often the exception, not the rule. For every Madeline that finds her way to WPI, a handful gets left behind.

Experts say it will take a sea change to fix and maintain a productive math and science pipeline. Cooperation is needed among science foundations and associations, colleges and universities, primary and secondary schools, and government and industry.

Some initiatives are already in place. The National Science Foundation has tripled its support to women researchers over the past decade to nearly $500 million, according to its director, Rita R. Colwell.

"When we consider how to attract women and minorities to science and technology, we begin to re-examine our assumptions about education across the board, from kindergarten to lifelong learning," Colwell noted in a recent address titled "From Glass Ceiling to Crystal Ball: A Vision of Women in Science" that she delivered at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Mass.

General Electric Company leads the charge for industry. The company has committed more than $10 million, through the GE Fund, to its Math Excellence initiative.

WPI is on the front lines, too. Its many pipeline programs target core areas: cooperation between universities and public schools, reaching out to elementary school students, and raising the bar for high school science and math teachers.

"Until we make exposure to technical education a priority at a very early age, students won't realize what doors they are closing." --Edward Alton Parrish, president, WPI

Building a Better Pipeline

Under the direction of its president, Edward Alton Parrish, WPI is taking a leadership role in raising awareness about the pipeline challenge. Its programs set a working example of how to bring more women and minorities into the SET fold. Camp Reach targets seventh grade girls while Strive reaches minority high-schoolers. The Mathematics in Industry Institute trains high school teachers and the Massachusetts Academy of Mathematics and Science at WPI, a public high school, enrolls talented juniors and seniors from central Massachusetts with an interest in the quantitative professions and helps technical professionals prepare for new careers as math and science teachers.

Tackling the problem, however, will require nothing short of "a radical makeover of the role of math and science in primary and secondary education," Parrish says. "Until we make exposure to technical education a priority at a very early age, students won't realize what doors they are closing. The fact is, unless pushed by a family member or teacher, few students

take advanced or elective math and science courses, yet these are the game stakes when it comes to higher education studies. When students opt out and become disinterested in math and science, most commonly at the junior high level, we have a responsibility to keep the door open for them--even if they choose not to walk through it.

"Until we address these preparation issues," Parrish concludes, "our society will continue to struggle to recruit and retain the next generation of technical talent, and higher education will struggle to prepare them."

Financing a fully representative pipeline will cost big bucks--about $5 billion. That's the price tag of setting up a comprehensive plan to ensure that "every American student receives excellent instruction in math and science, instruction critical to maintaining the U.S. edge in the competitive economy," according to the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century.

Many educators and industry leaders consider it a small price to pay, especially when compared with the potential losses that could be incurred by an underskilled American workforce in a competitive global economy.

Roadblocks to Diversity

The hefty bottom line of financing the pipeline isn't the only obstacle. Among the most entrenched difficulties is what Sheila Tobias, an education consultant and author of Overcoming Math Anxiety, describes as the unfounded belief that scientists are born, not made.

"One of the characteristics of the ideology of science is that science is a calling, something that a scientist wants to do, needs to do above all else and at all costs," she says. "Another is that both scientific talent and interest come early in life--the 'boy wonder' syndrome. If you don't ask for a chemistry set and master it by the time you're five, you won't be a good scientist. Since far fewer girls and women display these traits than boys and men, you end up with a culture that discriminates by gender."

How boys and girls react to computers is a recent case in point. In their book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher observe that "the fun for male students is not only in using the computer, but in knowing it and having it do what you want it to do." Most young girls, however, don't develop the passion for computers that many boys do when they are first exposed to them.

Testing pond water, GEMS students are introduced to environmental engineering.

"These attachment differences," say the authors, "help to shape students', parents' and teachers' expectations that boys and men, not girls and women, will excel in and enjoy computing." (Ironically, they add, because women's interests commonly extend beyond computing's technical aspects to its applicability within broad human and social contexts, they are particularly suited to quantitative careers involving computers.)

Even among children themselves, a self-fulfilling prophecy is at work. Margolis and Fisher cite a 1987 study chronicling "how from age five on, both boys and girls are aware of each other and want to stay within their own groups. The toys they choose must be appropriate for their gender to attract friends to play with them. They are resistant to changing this order."

Such behaviors are often reinforced unwittingly by parents. "Children," Margolis and Fisher state, "are keen observers. They notice whether their mother or father gets into the driver's seat or passenger side. They notice who is called for when the electric power goes out or the plumbing fails. They notice who sends the thank-you cards and they notice who tinkers with the computer."

Parents also influence the choices their children make by encouraging their quantitative development--or by failing to encourage it. Bruce E. Kearnan, a 20-year career actuary and general director of life products support at John Hancock, is a five-year member of the advisory board for WPI's Center for Industrial Mathematics and Statistics. "Just as you can instantly tell whether anyone has spent time playing catch with a youngster," he says, "you know whether someone cared enough to drill a child on the multiplication tables. The influence of parents and teachers when it comes to liking math, let alone considering a math-based career, can hardly be minimized."

In ways small and large, these kinds of messages are communicated to youngsters throughout their educational journey. What should a typical high school student conclude from being required to take four years of English and social studies but only two or three years of science and math? The results can be disheartening. In 1998 the Third International Mathematics and Sciences Study found that among U.S. students who had studied calculus in high school, 36 percent of males and 64 percent of females weren't planning to pursue a quantitative career--even when they did well in the subject.

Carmen Belleza, a teacher in the ethnically diverse Oak Grove High School in San Jose, Calif., took part in WPI's Mathematics in Industry Institute. She said the workshop helped her understand how her own unconscious behavior as she teaches her Algebra I and II classes may be contributing to those figures.

"I haven't consciously been encouraging female students," she says. "I may have three girls in a class of 30. The WPI workshop equipped me with ideas. I'm inspired again to help my students use math in their daily lives. And I'm going to invite parents, whom I rarely hear from, into my classroom."

"One of our responsibilities is to counteract the pocket-protector stereotype and show the thrill that springs from a way of thinking and a way of doing."
--Edward Alton Parrish

"Math teachers and others often feel that science and math are neutral and don't require any special attention to diversity," notes Stephanie Blaisdell. "But research shows that traditional ways of teaching math and science are exclusive, and so it takes some education to overcome that."

Getting disenfranchised students interested in math and science offers positive outcomes. "They supply the pipeline with fresh and diverse perspectives. More important," Parrish says, "they become better future adult citizens in their communities.

"One of our responsibilities is to counteract the pocket-protector stereotype and show the thrill that springs from a way of thinking and a way of doing. We can help them judge their world in new ways when they can tie their individual analytical abilities to the real world," says Parrish. "DVDs, digital satellite radio, and all the other devices of daily life didn't drop from the sky; they were created by engineers, with scientists, with mathematicians."

With WPI serving as a model for how public schools, universities and industry can work together, tomorrow's engineers, scientists and mathematicians will more accurately reflect the new face of the American workforce: more female, more ethnically diverse and--most important--more creative than ever before.

Morrison leads a full-service communications firm in Sturbridge, Mass. His most recent piece for Transformations was on facial recognition technology.

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 13:15 EDT
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