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Black students have talent for STEM careers but lack exposure, report finds

Hunter Richardson, right, explains a tire nut to (from left to right) Juan Peal, Javahn Watkins, Nichelle Davis and Charles Singleton at World Wide Technology Raceway on Aug 22.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Hunter Richardson, right, explains a tire nut to, from left, Juan Peal, Javahn Watkins, Nichelle Davis and Charles Singleton at World Wide Technology Raceway in 2019. A new report finds that Black students have the aptitude for STEM careers but do not pursue them because they are most likely not exposed to the industry.

Black students across the country have the aptitude for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, but they do not pursue them because they are most likely not exposed to the industry, according to a new report.

The 2024 Black Students and STEM Report found significant exposure gaps across the field. There is a 75% gap between Black students aptitudes and natural skills in advanced manufacturing, a 57% gap in health science and a 56% gap in finance career exposure. The report also shows a 53% gap in architecture and construction and a 51% exposure gap in computers and technology.

YouScience, a student career guidance technology company, and Black Girls Do STEM, a St. Louis-based STEM nonprofit, collaborated to produce the report. The organizations analyzed over 328,000 middle and high school students' interests and talents through an aptitude assessment and interest survey to help identify which STEM areas students have not been exposed to and which field may match their skills and pique their curiosity.

Now that the career exposure data has been revealed, the community can help Black students pair their interests and skills to a fulfilling career in STEM, said Cynthia Chapple, founder of Black Girls Do STEM.

“When we think about the basic skills of technology, Black students have them,” Chapple said. “We are just simply not highlighting that for them well enough … and then telling them, ‘Hey, you can go and do this as a career full-time and make this amount of money.’”

Across the country, African Americans are underrepresented in STEM-related fields. According to the National Science Foundation’s Diversity and STEM: Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities 2023 report, Black Americans represented only 9% of the STEM workforce in 2021. In 2011, Black workers made up 7% of the STEM workforce.

Although the access gap in St. Louis is slowly closing for Black students, STEM advocates say there is still a dire need for new solutions to help students explore education and careers in the field at an early age.

“If you've grown up in an environment where you have these blinders on, and all you can see is what your neighbors did or what your parents did, or what your friends did, then pretty soon you become very blinded,” said Edson Barton, CEO of YouScience.

Barton said the aptitude assessments and interest surveys help keep Black students' options open to STEM careers and help them realize that there are jobs in STEM that directly correlate to their interests.

YouScience’s aptitude tests are performance-based measures. They include brain exercises to help develop a robust picture of students' capabilities and then connect them to a particular STEM career that incorporates their natural talents and skills. The aptitude tests are administered through various school districts.

After analyzing the data, the report also found that Black female students are less likely to be exposed to STEM careers than Black male students. It found that 88% more Black female students have an aptitude for careers in advanced manufacturing than an interest and 73% more Black female students have the aptitude for careers in computers and technology than interest. In addition, 72% more Black female students have the talent for architecture and construction jobs than there is interest.

“In particular, this is a problem for young minority women and rural and urban students in general,” Barton said. “So, those groups tend to be the ones that have even more of this limitation put on them, and we need to break that open so that everybody has this opportunity to see themselves in a new life.”

Chapple said representation in STEM is crucial, especially for Black girls. Most of the girls who are a part of Chapple’s organization, Black Girls Do STEM, are often interested in the construction and civil engineering workshops. She plans to continue to widen access to STEM education and careers through mentorship with Black women in the field, in hopes of eventually broadening the girls' view of their career path.

To create interest and engagement in STEM education and careers from middle school through high school, the report proposes SAT and ACT preparation and tutorial courses to help with university admissions, college tours, mentorship programs for Black students and high school internships and externships with companies and organizations that provide hands-on experience in STEM industries.

“When we just think about overall child development, we have to think about how we socialized kids into believing in themselves, belonging in community and space,” Chapple said. “We have to do a lot better for Black kids simply because of the traditional environments that they have to navigate.”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.