Updated: Dec 31, 2020
The share of Black students completing STEM degrees was growing until the early 2000s. What went wrong?
By Ashley Smart
When Shirley Malcom decided in 1963 to forgo the University of Alabama, the still fitfully integrating school just 50 miles from her native Birmingham, and instead enroll at the University of Washington in Seattle, she says she ended up being the only Black person among 800 zoology majors. Eventually, Malcom says, another Black student saw her doing well academically and joined her. “He switched out of his major and came over to zoology,” she said. “Then there were two of us.”
Malcom graduated, earned a doctorate in ecology, taught high school biology, and eventually landed a post at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the national science advocacy group. There, she worked to boost representation for Black students and other underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and math — now commonly referred to as the STEM disciplines. By the end of the 20th century, her efforts, and those of countless others who had taken up the same cause, were paying off around the country. Black enrollment in engineering nearly tripled from 1970 to 1985, according...