President Barack Obama is channeling hundreds of millions of dollars into programs aimed at exposing minority and female students to STEM classes and careers – as new research finds significant barriers exist for low-income kids to pursue jobs in those areas.
Obama announced at the fifth annual White House Science Fair Monday more than $240 million in public and private sector commitments from foundations, schools and companies would be used to expand opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math for underrepresented groups.
The funding includes a five-year, $25 million Department of Education grant competition to develop science TV programming and digital media for low-income students; a $90 million campaign to support hands-on learning for minority and female students with commitments from Mexican media company Grupo Televisa and the City University of New York; and a $150 million grant program to fund early career scientists.
“We want to make sure everybody is involved,” Obama said during the announcement. “We [want to] get the most out of all our nation’s talent, and that means reaching out to boys and girls, men and women, of all races all backgrounds. Part of the problem is, we don’t tell stories enough of incredible scientists and inventors who are women or people of color. And as a consequence, people don’t see themselves as potential scientists.”
The announcement came as new research found that a majority of black and Latino kids have expressed interest in pursuing tech careers, but often don’t have enough information to explore them.
In the survey of more than 600 minority students and parents from across the country, conducted by the Creating IT Futures Foundation, students picked software programmer as a primary career interest – right after business owner.
Computer technician and computer design engineer were also included in their top 10 choices, dispelling common beliefs that kids from urban areas typically want to be entertainers or athletes, foundation CEO Charles Eaton said.
“These kids are actually thinking about this stuff,” Eaton said. “They may not know what the day-to-day life of a computer programmer is, they might not know what a civil engineer really does, but what’s important is the jobs sounded good. What we have to do as a society is encourage kids to stay on that path.”
The survey polled juniors and seniors from middle- and low-income homes who scored Bs and Cs in school.
“A lot of teens and parents viewed IT careers as paying well, offering a way to help people while providing fun and interesting work,” according to the report, which added that African-Americans and Hispanics constitute 27 percent of the workforce but represent about 12 percent of IT employees.
But the majority of the teens and parents surveyed think that IT jobs require a four-year degree, and that they have to excel in math or science classes to be considered for jobs.
“We don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing four-year college if that’s the right path for them, but we know for lower-income kids that the success rate in college is not what we’d like it to be,” Eaton said. “There are ways to build a great life and have a great career that’s based on constantly learning and gaining skills. That’s where IT careers appear to be fairly meritorious.”
Eaton added that careers as diverse as tech support, cybersecurity, coding and software design are “always going to be changing,” offering opportunities for workers to continue learning and gaining skills in their fields.
The survey also noted that employers and educators should use different approaches to drawing kids into tech fields.
“Kids don’t necessarily want to hear from speakers coming to class, they want to learn on the job,” said Eaton. “They want to intern and job shadow. Those are things that sound really interesting to them.”
Most teens surveyed said they learn about IT careers through elective courses in school and extracurricular activities. About 25 percent said they learned through actual job site visits.
Creating IT Futures, the nonprofit arm of IT trade association CompTIA, is currently rolling out short videos featuring minority tech workers, dispelling some of the myths about their jobs, that will be eventually shown in schools.
“We have to keep that excitement and desire to explore those careers alive,” Eaton said.