Paula Johnson, M.A.  • IDRA Newsletter • February 2016 •

Although women make up nearly half of the nation’s total labor community, they represent just over a quarter of the STEM workforce (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013). Moreover, the 2013 Census revealed that African Americans represent a mere 6 percent of STEM-related positions – a growth of only 4 percent in 40 years.

The 2013 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering Report by the National Science Foundation found that participation of African Americans and Latinos in science and engineering occupations, both professional and related, is low in comparison to the full U.S. workforce. Furthermore, women’s participation in engineering, mathematics, and the computer and physical sciences remains well below those of their male counterparts.

An even greater disparity is presented by the noticeable absence of African American and Latina women in STEM-related professions, comprising only 2 percent of all scientists and engineers working in science and engineering occupations (NSF, 2013).

We must find innovative opportunities that will provide schools the resources and support to attract, engage, and retain more minority young girls and prepare them for STEM-related education and careers. It is imperative that we address this critical shortage of minority women in the STEM areas. The marginalized communities of the United States represent a considerable population of untapped knowledge and potential to meet the need of current and future STEM-related positions. Limited diversity in advanced courses is often perpetuated by the continued presence of both implicit and explicit biases in curriculum and school culture resulting in enrollment that is frequently unrepresentative of the student population (Handelsman & Sakraney, 2015).

Several indicators are thought to be correlated to the disparately low number of women and minorities in mathematics and science. Differential encouragement from teachers, cultural stereotypes of the professions, and lack of gender-equitable teaching practices are among influences that can severely dissuade young women from to pursue careers in science and mathematics (Diekman, et al., 2010).

Previous investigations into this issue have shown that interest in STEM-related studies and occupations significantly declines between middle school and high school for girls of color in addition to a decreased interest in math and science over the same amount of time (VanLeuvan, 2004). Current educational practices have resulted in disproportionately low participation of males and females of minority racial and ethnic backgrounds due to differences in opportunity, achievement, and support.

Critical review of programs that have proven to be successful may provide a basis for further research examining the relationship between adolescent African American and Latina female identity and exposure to exploratory learning in STEM education (VanLeuvan, 2004). Studies to analyze factors, such as fair funding practices, achievement and opportunity related to advanced mathematics and science courses, gender-equitable learning environments, and culturally responsive pedagogy, can significantly inform the body of knowledge in the field.

Two shining examples offer a theoretical basis for such programs. The Algebra Project’s social justice in education principles and IDRA’s asset-based Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program design place students who are in at-risk situations into positions of responsibility and leadership.

The principles of social justice embody the importance of the organizing traditions of the civil rights movements: “the centrality of families to the work… and organizing in the context of the community” (Moses & Cobb, 2001). These programs, both with a long history of success, have shown that when schools value student efforts, youth thrive and succeed. Geneva Gay discusses the goals of the Algebra Project in the Handbook of Urban Education (Milner & Lomotey, 2013) accordingly: “The goal of the Algebra Project (Moses & Cobb, 2001; Moses, et al., 2009), which has been in existence since 1985, is to ‘raise the floor of mathematics literacy’ (Moses, et al., 2009) for students of color performing in the lowest quartile on state and national achievement tests.”

Similarly, IDRA’s activities have included selecting groups of students who are not usually on an honors path for recruitment to apply for college. We have seen students who are low math achievers take data from a survey, quantify it, analyze it and report their findings to a group of adults. We have seen young ladies in Brownsville develop community projects on diabetes and present technical information bilingually to their community. Almost of these students are from poor, Spanish-speaking families.

The underlying principle of these types of endeavors is: all students have inherent intelligence, creativity and curiosity. The complexities of any content area will be used and applied if the project is of great personal interest and technical information and guidance is provided as needed. IDRA programs employ a valuing philosophy that supports students in building their capacity for leadership and encourages them to take on the role of personal and academic responsibility.

The IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program model has been cited as one of only two models in the country to have a “significant impact” on dropouts and school performance (Slavin & Fashola, 1998). In addition to Fashola & Slavin’s analysis, the model has been independently validated by others, such as the RAND Corporation, and in 2015 the program was highlighted by the U.S. Department of Education as a “Bright Spot in Hispanic Education Fulfilling America’s Future.”

Continuities – Lessons for the Future of Education from the IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program

Most research focused on increasing the number of minority women in STEM analyzes the impact of non-school-based summer programs on middle school girls’ perceptions and attitudes toward STEM. According to the Harvard Symposium addressing Women of Color in STEM, there have been many studies surrounding this topic, but not enough published reports (2011). In fact, a review of the Harvard Education Review from 1976 to 2010 revealed that, of its 16 articles related to women of color in higher education, not one addressed the unique intersection of sex, race, and chosen career, science. Recent findings have identified successful approaches that increase girls’ confidence levels and interest in STEM education (2002), but there is not much information on the curricular design of the programs (Fancsali, 2002; Hansen, et al., 1995).

In order to fulfill the federal government’s twin objectives of increasing the number of women in STEM fields and better serving historically underrepresented groups in STEM, we must analyze the ways in which we guide students in developing their STEM identities and navigating college and career pathways. As such, further investigation is needed to strategically isolate, study and identify strategies that are particularly effective in addressing the educational needs of African American and Latina girls. These studies should focus on how variation in students’ STEM experiences across school settings impacts their STEM trajectories (Grossman & Porche, 2014). Properly nurtured, this underrepresented community of learners has the potential to emerge as a powerful STEM cohort that contributes to fortifying our stronghold in the global economy. Properly nurtured, this underrepresented community of learners can yield a strong STEM cohort and fortify our stronghold in the global economy.


Diekman, A.B., & E.R. Brown, A.M. Johnston, A.K. Clark. “Seeking Congruity Between Goals and Roles a New Look at Why Women Opt Out of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers,” Psychological Science (2010).

Fancsali, C. What We Know About Girls, STEM, and Afterschool Programs (New York, N.Y.: Academy for Educational Development, Educational Equity Center, 2002).

Fashola, O.S., & R.E. Slavin. “Effective Dropout Prevention and College Attendance Programs for Students Placed At Risk,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (1998).

Handelsman, J. & N. Sakraney. Implicit Bias (Washington, D.C.: White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, September 2015).

Hansen, L.S., & J. Walker, B. Flom. Growing Smart: What’s Working for Girls in School (New York: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1995).

Milner IV, H.R., & K. Lomotey. Handbook of Urban Education (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2013).

Moses, R.P., & C.E. Cobb. Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2001).

Moses, R., & M.M. West, F.E. Davis. “Culturally Responsive Mathematics Education in the Algebra Project,” Culturally Responsive Mathematics Education (New York, N.Y.: Routledge. 2009).

National Science Foundation. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2013, Special Report NSF 13-304 (Arlington, Va.: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2013).

U.S. Census Bureau. Census Bureau Reports Women’s Employment in Science, Tech, Engineering and Math Jobs Slowing as Their Share of Computer Employment Falls (Washington, D.C., September 9, 2013).

VanLeuvan, P. “Young Women’s Science/Mathematics Career Goals from Seventh Grade to High School Graduation,” The Journal of Educational Research (May-June, 2004).

Paula Johnson, M.A., is a education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]