Reports Identify Best Practices for Broadening S&E Diversity

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Publication date: 
10 May 2004

"Underrepresented groups comprise nearly two-thirds of the overall U.S. workforce yet only make up one-quarter of the science and engineering workforce." - BEST Panel on Best Practices in Pre-K-12 Education

An organization whose purpose is to broaden the diversity of the science and engineering workforce has issued two reports addressing this issue. At an April 29 Capitol Hill event, BEST (Building Engineering and Science Talent) released studies of best practices, at the pre-K-12 level and in the workplace, for attracting and retaining women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. A third BEST report, on higher education, was released separately and will be summarized in FYI #60.

"What it Takes: Pre-K-12 Design Principles to Broaden Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics," focuses on "what is working" to encourage STEM participation and achievement among children from underrepresented groups. In introducing the report, Shirley Malcolm, the pre-K-12 Panel Co-chair, stated that the nation has to "invest in research and analysis.... We can't just keep winging it." She noted that, of the 34 programs examined for the report, none had sufficient proof of effectiveness to be considered "verified," and only two earning a rating of "probable effectiveness." Eighteen others were considered "notable" or "meriting further research investment."

From its analysis, the BEST panel was able to identify "a framework of design principles or shared features" of effective programs: agreed-upon and well-defined outcomes; persistence; personalization of the programs to acknowledge the individual development of students; challenging content; and adults - teachers and parents - who are engaged and supportive. From this list, Malcolm said, a list of principles can also be distilled for "how to make things worse," including blurred vision; trying the "intervention du jour;" competing agendas; inconsistent leadership; overreliance on testing and teaching to inadequate tests; and schools and classes that are too large.

The report also highlights the importance of deepening the knowledge base on such programs. "The fact that a substantial search for effective programs turned up relatively little research evidence is in itself an important finding," it says. "The national interest lies in deepening the research base as quickly and cost effectively as possible." The panel's additional recommendations are to tighten "the links between research, policy and practice" so that research findings are accessible and relevant to school administrators and policymakers, and to align system-wide approaches that address all students with targeted approaches tailored to specific groups.

"For all its strength, the human resource base of U.S. innovation lacks bench-strength and diversity," states the second report, "The Talent Imperative: Diversifying America's Science and Engineering Workforce." "Half of the technical workforce is over 40 and almost one-third of technical workers are over 50," the report continues. "Despite decades of effort, this workforce remains over 75 percent male and 80 percent white. A successor generation has shown declining interest in key fields - including mathematics, computer science, physical sciences and engineering - upon which future technological progress depends."

To identify diversity programs that have been nationally recognized as effective, the BEST workforce panel looked at diversity-related awards and "best to work for" lists. Although acknowledging that "there is no one-size-fits-all explanation to an imbalance that has persisted in our nation's technical workforce," the panel identified "a common set of design principles and implementing practices" of these programs: sustained commitment to change; a strategy that is seamlessly integrated into the entire organization; high expectations and management accountability; and continuous improvement with regular cycles of planning, execution and evaluation.

The panel also recommended "a mutually reinforcing set of four mechanisms" to drive change on a national scale: a leadership commitment to inclusiveness, exemplified by a public pledge to diversity; a workforce leadership network to encourage others to take action and to share best practices; well-documented toolkits for workforce development; and a national workforce excellence award modeled on the Malcolm Baldrige Award.

"Upstream barriers" in pre-K-12 and higher education and workplace barriers "cannot be overcome in isolation," the workforce report states. "At the same time, transformational changes in the workplace will not occur without a greater inflow of technical talent from underrepresented groups. The end users of America's talent pool share responsibility for leadership in opening up the opportunity structure across the board."

BEST is a public-private partnership, initiated by the Council on Competitiveness, to "spur action to build a stronger, more diverse U.S. technical workforce." The reports, or their executive summaries, are available at under "Publications."