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New Approach Needed to Help Latinos in STEM Fields

For transfer rates to improve, colleges and universities must dramatically reshape how science and mathematics is taught, according to a report released by the USC Center for Urban Education at the USC Rossier School of Education.

In addition, National Science Foundation funding should be directed toward research and experimental programming that involves new curriculum in mathematics education.

The report was the primary focus of a conference call co-hosted by the Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy organization whose mission is to ensure that California produces 1 million additional college graduates between now and 2025 to meet the workforce demands of the future.

The recommendations in the report emphasize that faculty from community colleges and four-year universities should be brought together to plan and implement curricular innovations.

“In California, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, we are losing far too many Latino and Latina community college students to what is undeniably a long, drawn out, skills-based remedial mathematics curriculum,” said Alicia C. Dowd, co-director of the Center for Urban Education and an associate professor of higher education. “We need a fundamentally new approach.”

The report also highlights the need to expand access for Latino transfer students to bachelor’s degrees in biological and environmental sciences and in engineering.

Hispanic serving institutions outperform non-Hispanic serving institutions in terms of awarding transfer students bachelor’s degrees in computer science, mathematics and STEM-related fields, which include health sciences and science education. However, non-Hispanic-serving institutions grant a higher proportion of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and in biological, agricultural and environmental sciences to transfer students than do Hispanic serving institutions.

“The America COMPETES Act can provide important resources to four-year Hispanic serving institutions, enabling them to improve transfer access in all STEM fields, but particularly in engineering and the biological and environmental services,” said Lindsey Malcom, one of the report’s researchers, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside and a USC alumna.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, identifies several reasons why an opportunity gap exists in regard to Latinos in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).

The report’s researchers say it has nothing to do with Latinos’ lack of aspirations. Rather, much of it is due to lack of funding directed at Hispanic serving institutions.

Although 40 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to Latinos in all fields of study are granted by Hispanic serving institutions, only 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to Latinos in STEM fields are from Hispanic serving institutions. To date, Hispanic serving institutions have been chronically underfunded in the distribution of federal STEM research dollars, which has limited their capacity to offer the undergraduate research opportunities that are known to attract and retain students in the sciences, according to the report.

At West Los Angeles College, a Hispanic serving institution with a student population that is 30 percent Latino and 35 percent African American, creating an environment that is conducive to STEM fields is critical to its mission, said Mark W. Rocha, the president of the community college. This month, the college opened a state-of-the-art, university level math and science building.

“Definitely for us math, math, math is the big hurdle,” Rocha said. “But most of our students, about 70 percent of them, come in without college-level math skills. If we’re going to have any traction here, we’re going to really have to reinvent our approach to math education.”

Rocha said the college also aims to diversify its faculty.

“We need to be innovative about how we create a conducive, cultural environment,” he said. “We don’t have enough Latino teachers of math and science here at my college so we need to find innovative ways to bring them in so that students can see themselves in role models.”

New Approach Needed to Help Latinos in STEM Fields

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