High-paying technology jobs go begging, yet millions of women and minority students continue to turn away from high school math and science courses. At the Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, Cynthia Lanius is helping teachers gain the skills they need to change this dangerous situation.
What is the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education?
It’s a brand new center that we’re developing at Rice University. It will become an umbrella organization for several projects that predated the CEEE.
Our mission is to promote greater participation of under-represented groups in the sciences and to encourage academic excellence for all. We have rich diversity in our city, and we want the highest levels of our educational system to reflect this diversity.
We want to encourage more and more women and minorities to participate in science. We work with local school districts, and we also work on our mission on a national level. We write papers and are working on a book that addresses how to increase the participation of under-represented groups.
Why do we need diversity in these fields?
There are several points that I would make. One is the health of the nation. It’s extremely unhealthy for the nation to have such a large part of its population outside science, engineering and technology.
The minority population is growing rapidly and becoming an even larger part of the population, yet only a small number of them pursue science, math and technology. As a result, we have a huge shortage of workers.
The country has always imported workers when there was a crisis in science or mathematics — we increase the number of immigrants. But the number of workers that we need now is larger than the numbers we can import and the nation needs to develop this large untapped population.
We have a huge segment of the population whose talents are not being developed, who are missing opportunities for jobs with very good wages.
Could the different viewpoints that women and minorities might have be valuable to the fields of math and science?
Well, I think so, though we don’t usually make that argument because mathematicians will tend to scoff at that, and say that math is math regardless of who does it.
I don’t have any evidence, except some anecdotal evidence, to show that the science itself is going to change and be better if it’s a more diverse group. But, for example, it’s been true that as more women went into health or health occupations, women’s health issues got more attention. I think we need women and under-represented minorities at the highest levels.
Why aren’t more minority students drawn to math and science?
Well, where do minorities live? Mostly in cities. The Chicago public school system is 10 percent white. Houston is also about 10 percent white. Los Angeles is about 10 percent, and New York is about 15 percent.
Life in these urban areas can be much more complicated than just dealing with math and science. For example, when teen violence happens in the suburbs, it suddenly becomes “our problem.” But violence in urban schools is “their problem” — the cities’ problem, something we just learn to live with.
As the film “Stand and Deliver” depicted, the prevailing culture in many urban schools tends not to reward and validate a student. Students who want to excel may actually have to go against the grain of their culture, at home as well as within the school.
Here’s an example. We had a female student who got a complete scholarship to MIT. Her parents would not let her take it, because they didn’t want her to leave the family! She ended up going to the University of Houston, which is a great school — but it’s certainly not MIT.
What about kids themselves?
I taught in an urban school, and I didn’t leave because I was burned out. I loved those kids and I loved teaching them. I tell people to forget their stereotypes about inner-city kids living in cities, because most of them are absolutely wonderful, caring considerate people.
High expectations are absolutely a key. These kids need school to be challenging. They should have to struggle, to feel that thrill of working hard and finally getting something they’re proud of. I’m not sure many experience that.
I think we have to do a better job of showing students the opportunities — with the IT shortage, math and science skills can lead to a very, very good paying job! And many of these jobs are also very rewarding in other ways.
You really have to surrogate parent a bit. You have to make the students believe that they can do it. The motivation is sometimes the hardest.
How do you motivate?
First of all, if you’re teaching mathematics, you have to love mathematics yourself. And show that it is a very interesting and exciting subject. Students can be excited and enthused about mathematics if they see it taught in an exciting way.
It’s content and pedagogy. The math that you are teaching on a daily basis needs to be rich and interesting.
There have been such negative stereotypes about what math is all about. The fact is that today, mathematicians work on some of the most challenging, life-saving problems that we face in our country and on the planet.
What’s an example of a CEEE project?
One is a program called “Girl Tech,” a professional development program for teachers.
Girl Tech has several major goals. One is to help teachers to become aware that women are severely under-represented in computer science — and are becoming more so all the time. We want to get them active in solving this problem.
Another goal is to increase teachers’ own skill with computers and educational technology, so that mathematics and science teachers can better use technology in teaching their subjects.
In 1995, when Girl Tech started, there was a real interest in the Web. We used that as a carrot to bring interested teachers into our program. So our third goal is to help teachers contribute to the resources of the Web by publishing math and science curriculum. We have an archive of a lot of wonderful math and science activities that have been produced by teachers.
We’ve been working now for the last two or three years looking at how we might move across the country and we are really excited about that. The University of California San Diego is going to run a Girl Tech program next year, and Boston University is going to run a program as well.
Are any of the materials you have developed available online?
Yes, at the Girl Tech Web site, and also at my own Web site.*
Any last thoughts?
I don’t think I could do better than to relay something I read in a recent report of the White House Science and Technology Council: “It is a fundamental responsibility of a modern nation to develop the talents of all its citizens.”
*Girl Tech Web Site: