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Advancing Equity and Empowerment in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)

OSTP highlights ways in which the Administration is working to broaden participation in STEM.

Yesterday, the White House Council on Women and Girls welcomed to the White House Young Women Empowering their Communities as Champions of Change. These Champions of Change are young women using science, technology, and innovation to improve the lives of those next door and around the world. For example, Marissa Jennings of Washington, D.C., is the founder and CEO of SOCIALgrlz LLC, the first mobile web publishing company creating content specifically for African-American girls ages 13-17. With her budding business, Marissa has created an opportunity for the voices of African-American girls to be heard through modern technology. Then there is Rita Herford of Huron County, MI, who is applying her degree in Crop and Soil Science and Agribusiness to improve sustainable farming practices on her family’s farm, and is using social media to educate consumers on modern, safe, and sustainable practices to yield healthy food.

OSTP's Jo Handelsman speaks at "White House Champions of Change: Young Women Empowering Communities"
Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, delivers remarks at yesterday’s “White House Champions of Change: Young Women Empowering Communities” event. (Photo credit: Danielle Carnival)

These women are shining examples of why all young people must be given the opportunity to excel in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). To meet the workforce needs of the next generation, the pool of STEM-ready professionals needs to expand and diversify. Achieving the President’s goal of producing one million additional STEM college graduates by 2022 will require engaging and supporting all people, including women, girls, and racial and ethnic minorities who are underrepresented in STEM fields. As the President said at the 2015 White House Science Fair:

“We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM. We want to make sure everybody is involved. We want to increase the diversity of STEM programs, as well…and that means reaching out to boys and girls, men and women of all races and all backgrounds. Science is for all of us. And we want our classrooms and labs and workplaces and media to reflect that.”

Although women and girls have recently reported increased interest in STEM fields and more women than ever before are graduating college with degrees in STEM, women still occupy only 28 percent of STEM jobs and comprise just 37 percent of STEM college graduates. And the percentage of women earning computer science and engineering degrees has decreased over the last few decades. Alarmingly, in 11 states last year, no students of color took the AP computer science exam and only 9.6 percent of STEM AP test takers were girls of color (though girls of color represent 15 percent of the population). A mere 2 percent of the computing and engineering workforce nationwide are women of color.

Past and ongoing Administration efforts to broaden participation in STEM

The Administration is committed to changing the landscape to be more inclusive and diverse. Working across the White House, Federal agencies, and the private sector, the Administration has made progress on improving STEM education and increasing access for more students. For example:

  • Broad education initiatives have included a competitive preference for STEM. In order to receive competitive preference points under the Department of Education’s Race to the Top Grant Program, applicants had to include a high-quality plan to prepare more students for advanced study and careers in STEM, including by addressing the needs of underrepresented groups and girls.
  • Starting in 2010, the First Lady’s Joining Forces Initiative and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have teamed up with the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) on a campaign to give many more students at public high schools serving a high percentage of military families’ access to Advanced Placement (AP) coursework in math and science. This program is now in more than 100 military-impacted high schools, and has had a proven impact on girls earning early college credit in STEM, increasing the number of girls passing AP math and science tests in just one year by an average of 87 percent per school.
  • At the 2014 White House Summit on Working Families, Federal science agencies announced efforts to increase STEM career opportunities for all, including women. These efforts included new partnerships to bring STEM professionals to K-12 classrooms and newly implemented cost allowance policies on Federal research grants for childcare at professional conferences to lessen the challenges for working families.
  • In response to the President and First Lady’s call at two White House College Opportunity Days of Action to expand STEM college completion for all students, including broadening achievement of women and minorities in STEM fields in which they are under-represented, more than 140 colleges and universities have committed to launch new programs, scholarships, and outreach.
  • The White House social media platforms have featured examples of diverse participation in STEM fields. For example, the White House’s Google+ Hangout series “We the Geeks” has engaged impressive STEM leaders of all backgrounds to share their stories and answer questions from the public. In addition, the White House hosted an “edit-a-thon” in which anyone with access to a computer could share the stories of African Americans in STEM fields. At the edit-a-thon, participants from across the country, including approximately 50 participants at the White House, posted compelling or untold stories of the important contributions of African Americans throughout our Nation’s STEM history.
  • The President has demonstrated his personal commitment to STEM inclusion by highlighting a broad array of accomplishments in STEM subjects, by, for example, inviting to the Oval Office the talented young female winners of the first-annual Google Science Fair, and welcoming countless middle and high school girl scientists and engineers to the White House as part of White House Science Fairs and other celebrations of student STEM achievement (some which have honored, in particular, the accomplishments of girls and other groups underrepresented in STEM). And when the President made history last December by becoming the first President to write a line of computer code, his teacher for that historic lesson was an African American middle school girl from Newark, New Jersey.

Looking towards the future

Going forward, the Administration will add focus in areas that decades of research indicate can make a change in inspiring and providing support for all Americans, including women and girls of color, to succeed in STEM courses and careers. As a Nation, we must:

  • Transform the Way STEM is Taught: Increasing the use of active learning at all levels of education–by engaging students intellectually and requiring that they solve problems, ask questions, and inquire–provides students with the opportunity to think and act like scientists and engineers rather than just learn from textbooks what others have discovered. This means incorporating real-world problems as well as authentic research and design into classroom teaching from PreK through college in order to inspire girls and boys of all races and backgrounds to solve the problems facing their communities and the world using STEM. These real-world science and engineering experiences can help students identify as STEM professionals while they are still in the classroom, experience the fun and excitement of STEM in action, and acquire the confidence to confront the challenges they may face in the pursuit of STEM careers.
  • Address Biases against Girls and Women in STEM: Implicit biases represent a prominent, yet often unrecognized, aspect of prejudice that remains as strong today as it was decades ago. These biases manifest in many types of images and behaviors, including the lack of STEM role models for women and girls, especially those of color; behaviors of people in evaluating applicants for academic and workplace opportunities; and structures or policies that disproportionately impact women. For more on the impact of and ways to address implicit bias, see the fact sheet released yesterday by OSTP. To reduce and mitigate many types of bias that affect the success of people in STEM, including women and girls, and people of color, it is important to raise awareness about the impacts of inherent bias.

To help address the lack of visible role models in STEM, the White House launched a website that highlights some of the “Untold History of Women in Science and Technology.” The website uses the voices of prominent women in the Administration to tell the stories of some of their heroes, female scientists, technologists, and engineers who have changed history. In addition, because research has shown that young people often need to see role models that they identify with to help inspire future career paths, the Office of Science and Technology Policy is discussing additional ways that young girls can gain access to images of diverse women who have successful careers in STEM.

Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Danielle Carnival is Assistant Director for Education and Learning Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.