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Fostering Diversity in Science

Science Education Priority

Diversity—of ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds—is a key ingredient of good science. 

Yet despite America’s remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity, those pursuing science degrees at the highest levels are disproportionately white and Asian American.

It is not because of a lack of interest within other groups. A 2005 American Council on Education study found that college-bound underrepresented minorities—African American, Hispanic, and Native American—express nearly the same interest in science, technology, engineering, and math majors as white students.

Over time, however, the number of minority students following the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) path dwindles dramatically. In the same study, just 63 percent of African-American and Hispanic students who entered college with an interest in STEM actually completed a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field, while 87 percent of whites and 95 percent of Asian Americans did so. And although African Americans represented 12.5 percent of the U.S. population in a 2008 study, this group earned just 2.5 percent of science and engineering doctorate degrees. The ratio for Hispanics was just as dismal: 15 percent of the population, but 2.9 percent earned science and engineering doctorates.

These statistics become even more worrisome in the context of America’s population growth: underrepresented minorities represented 28 percent of the U.S. population in 2006, but by 2050, that number is expected to reach 45 percent. To maintain a strong scientific workforce in the US, it will only become more critical to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the sciences at all levels.

To that end, HHMI takes four interconnected approaches:


1. Financial Support

Students who receive financial support to pursue higher education and research are more likely to complete their degrees than those who don’t. Such support is especially important for minority students, who are more likely than white students to come from low-income families.

Success story: Through the HHMI EXROP program, dozens of undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds receive financial support to conduct research with HHMI investigators and professors each summer. These students are also eligible to receive Gilliam Fellowships, which provide full support for up to four years of study toward a Ph.D.

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2. Academic Support

Providing academic support to minority STEM students from the outset can help them experience early success and motivate them to stay enrolled. Summer programs, faculty and peer mentoring, study groups, and early research opportunities have all been shown to improve retention rates for STEM students.

Success Story: The Biology Scholars Program (BSP) at the University of California, Berkeley provides comprehensive and individualized support for biology students from an array of underrepresented groups. Since its inception in 1992, it has supported more than 2,650 students; since 2006, the number of BSP students who have gone on to graduate school has doubled each year.

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3. Social Support

Particularly in schools where white students comprise the majority of the student body, minority students can feel socially isolated. Integrating students into learning communities with faculty members and other students can ease the transition and encourage persistence in STEM majors.

Success story: At Brown University, geneticist Michael McKeown leads a summer program that brings together eight-person research teams, known as learning communities, each summer. The groups work with faculty supervisors to develop interdisciplinary projects while building strong bonds—both socially and academically—with each other and faculty mentors. These bonds last well beyond the summer program and into the school year.

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4. A Culture of Success

Undergraduate institutions may not be able to provide extensive financial, academic, and social support to every admitted minority student. But incremental efforts to do so can help build a culture in which all students have high self-expectations.

Success story: Since 1989, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County has offered a competitive scholarship program for high-performing science students. About half of the 50 to 60 students who receive the scholarships each year are African American. UMBC is the top producer among majority-serving institutions of African-American undergraduates who go on to earn the PhD. Since 1993, the Meyerhoff program has graduated more than 800 students in the STEM disciplines.

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Recommended resources for further reading
Meyerhoff Scholars Program History


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