Irving Epstein on why we need to cultivate nonwhite students in the sciences

In today's Los Angeles Times Dr. Irving Epstein, Brandeis University chemistry prof and HHMI investigator, writes in "The science of science education":

In 2005, more than two-thirds of the American scientific workforce was composed of white males. But by 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the population. If the pipeline fails to produce qualified nonwhite scientists, we will, in effect, be competing against the rest of the world with one hand tied behind our backs.

Let me repeat: By 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the [U.S] population.

There are many science educators around the world who are trying to cultivate into the STEMM disciplines young people who are not of the default demographic.

However, wanting to do so and actually doing it is far more challenging than one might think. Even a scientist as accomplished and educator as experienced as Epstein was challenged. Brandeis already had a program for select minority students, "that utilized team-building and peer support as mechanisms to help students survive and thrive academically":

The program, run by The Posse Foundation, works with universities to select and coach "posses" of 10 inner-city students who then attend, in a group, some of the country's top universities. The program is remarkably successful, producing a graduation rate over 90%. But even the Posse Foundation fell short in the sciences. Fewer than 10% of its students graduated in science, even though nearly half started off intending to do so.

Succeeding in the sciences required a much more intensive effort. For example, many of these students know that they need to work hard to excel in universities such as Brandeis, they just never learned how in their high school experiences.

Posse Foundation president, Deborah Bial, embraced Epstein's idea and, with the additional support of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Science Posse Scholars program was established to give students substantive pre-college experiences:

In January, they begin eight months of weekly after-school training sessions involving academics, problem-solving, team-building and communication skills. In July, they come to Brandeis for a two-week "boot camp" designed to give them not only a flavor of campus life but also a realistic sense of how hard one has to work and how much one must rely on peers, teachers and mentors to succeed in science at a competitive university.

When the students arrive in September, they are provided with a graduate student mentor, who meets with them regularly and serves as a resource for academic and personal issues. They are offered the opportunity to work part time in research laboratories in order to earn needed cash and to appreciate the sense of community in a research group.

Epstein reports that nine of the 10 students completed general freshman chemistry with six of them making Dean's List. While he doesn't provide the baseline numbers, it is not uncommon to see a pass rate of 50% or less in similar cohorts without intervention.

The lesson I take from Epstein's article is that it is not enough to recruit well-qualified minority students and help them once they arrive at university. Instead, programs need to cultivate these students earlier and prepare them better for the intensity and rigor of college-level science. Research experiences are great and certainly introduce students to the community of science and provide a context for their studies. But there is work that must be done at the basic level: basic writing skills, critical thinking skills, how to study, time management skills, and even (or especially) basic financial management.

I have to admit that his area is part of my continuing education as I am trained as a laboratory investigator, not an education investigator. As Michaelangelo said, I am still learning. However, I have been part of "boot-camp" types of pre-collegiate experiences for minority students accepted into pharmacy programs and have been fortunate to participate in the kinds of successful outcomes of such a program in clinical pharmacy practice.

So, I thank Professor Epstein for sharing with us his story and an example of how to do the same in the basic sciences. After all, according to the Good Professor's quote at the outset of this post, when I am his age I will be in the minority.

For additional reading, The Posse Foundation featured the Brandeis program here in May, 2009.


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***In 2005, more than two-thirds of the American scientific workforce was composed of white males. But by 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the population. If the pipeline fails to produce qualified nonwhite scientists, we will, in effect, be competing against the rest of the world with one hand tied behind our backs.***

A better idea would be adopt Jason Richwine's idea of selecting smart immigrants. Intelligence is significantly heritable and there is bucketloads of research suggesting that populations have different group averages. For instance, the average IQ for Ashkenazi Jews has been pegged at 107.5 to 115. That's only modestly higher than the overall European average of 100, but the gap is large enough to produce a huge difference at the upper end of the distribution. When a group's average IQ is 100, the percentage of people above 140 is 0.4%; when the average is 110, the rate is 2.3%.

G. Cochran, J. Hardy, H. Harpending, Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science 38 (5), pp. 659â693 (2006).

Page 134 of this paper by Linda Gottfredson sets out the ability needed for different occupations and the implications of different group averages.

Skills gaps, not tests, make racial proportionality impossible. Gottfredson, Linda S. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Vol 6(1), Mar 2000, 129-143

Wait, why don't you extend these same extraordinary measures to poor white students from Appalachian regions so that white male numbers stay high? Why are you discriminating against deserving white males?

By El Picador (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink