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    Minorities make up a greater portion of the U.S. population than ever before. From 2000 to 2010, both the Asian and Hispanic or Latino populations grew by 43 percent while the number of non-Hispanic whites fell from 69 to 64 percent of the country’s population. If this trend continues, the term “minority” may soon no longer apply. By 2042, minorities are expected to account for more than half of the U.S. population.

     

    Despite this consistent growth, minorities are still underrepresented in engineering education. The lack of minorities with college degrees in engineering has plagued the industry for years, leading to an undiversified workforce. Nearly 1,135,000 employed engineers are Caucasian, compared to just 56,000 African-American engineers and 101,000 Hispanic or Latino engineers.

     

    Many in the industry have argued action must be taken early on in order to help reverse this trend. A student’s passion for engineering must be ignited well before he or she ever sets foot on a college campus.

     

    Hands-on Learning

    Frequent exposure to STEM subjects through hands-on learning opportunities is crucial to fueling a student’s interest in engineering throughout high school and beyond. Economic restraints, however, can often lead to an absence of specialized programs that can better equip students with the practical experience and knowledge they need to be successful. As a result, many disadvantaged minority students are unable to sharpen their STEM skills or pursue a career in engineering.

     

    The National Assessment of Educational Progress – the largest continuing and nationally representative assessment of American students’ knowledge in various subject areas – found that African-American public school students rate lower than their peers in science at the fourth, eighth and 12th grade levels. In both elementary and secondary education institutions, students from minority groups are falling behind.

     

    Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers

    One legislator is taking action. Paul Tonko, a U.S. representative from New York’s 20th congressional district, is spearheading a bill called “Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers.” If passed, the bill will require states to incorporate engineering design skills and practices into their academic content standards in science by the 2016-2017 school year. It will also provide funding for STEM subject areas, specifically engineering and computer science.

     

    But perhaps most importantly, it will enable local educational agencies to allocate funds toward professional development in engineering, giving aspiring engineers the opportunity to explore their career interests while developing valuable skills. In February 2015 the bill was assigned to a congressional committee where it will be reviewed before moving to the House or Senate.

     

    Integrating Engineering and Literacy

    In engineering, education is action. The Integrating Engineering Literacy (IEL) project favors practice over theory, driven by the goal to create and refine a curriculum model that introduces engineering design challenges to young students.

     

    Researchers at Tufts University first launched the program in September 2010 to better understand the effectiveness of interdisciplinary methods that combine literature with engineering activities. Since that time, the IEL project has spent more than $3 million testing professional development models that educate students in grades 3-5 on engineering concepts using stories in popular children’s literature. The project not only offers thousands of elementary school students the chance to learn about engineering at an early age, but it also provides researchers with insights that help shape and improve engineering education – and ultimately employment – moving forward.

     

    This is Part I in a three-part series on the state of minorities in engineering. Read Part II and Part III, and download a full copy of the Minorities in Engineering insights report to learn more.