Students combat lack of diversity in STEM classes

Hadley Carr

When Esther Kpognon logged into her Computer Science Essentials class for the first time, she quickly noticed that the faces staring back at her were all male. 

Kpognon is one of 23 females out of the 81 students taking computer science classes at Wilson this year. Kpognon is supported by her classmates and her teacher, and believes that Computer Science Essentials will allow her to pursue greater interests in Computer Science and Information Technology. However, she said, “the only thing I don’t like is being the only girl.”

The disproportionate gender ratio extends beyond Computer Science into largely math-based STEM classes such as engineering. In Junior Amanda McHugh’s engineering classes, there are usually around 2-3 girls. This year, in her Electronics Engineering class, McHugh was the only girl. 

“I’ve always felt an underlying feeling of being out of place,” says McHugh, but adds that her teacher, Angela Benjamin, being a female, “understands what it’s like to be a girl in the [engineering] field.”

While females are far outnumbered in classes rooted in math, in classes with a basis in biology, gender demographics are the reverse. Senior Isabel Lopez Santiago notes that in the “Biomedical [Science] Pathway there tends to be more girls,” adding that figures in the media may play a part in the role of such unbalanced representation.

“Oftentimes, in a movie or TV show, computer science engineers are played by men. While biologists and environmental scientists are played by women.”

Despite the disproportionate gender demographics in certain STEM pathways, across the entirety of the academy, there is a lack of racial representation.

In Miles T. Davis’ first engineering class, he was one of four Black students. As he continued on the engineering pathway, there seemed to be little to no Black representation besides his teacher, Angela Benjamin. 

Davis’ experience was shared by Isabel Lopez Santiago who realized she was among the only Latinx students in her STEM classes. The issue of her underrepresentation was not always glaring. However, once she began to pay attention to the racial composition of her class, she realized underrepresentation was a large issue. 

Davis and Lopez Santiago are not alone in their experiences. According to Data Coordinator Joseph Bellino, in the SciMaTech academy of 345 students, 51.6 percent, or 178 students, are white, compared to the 15 Asian students, 69 Black students, and 60 Hispanic/Latinx students.

However, Davis and Lopez Santiago have both taken steps to combat the underrepresentation they’ve seen in their STEM classes. Davis reestablished the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Junior Chapter at Wilson after seeing the lack of Black presence in engineering classes. He wanted to begin an initiative so “Black people specifically are seen in the Engineering Pathway.”

NSBE Jr. consists of Kahoots, drawing games, and small projects accompanied by presentations about Black scientists and engineers.  

Lopez Santiago began the Latinx in STEM club, which shares the same structure: an activity and an accompanying presentation. Her activities take the shape of practicing combinatorics with Sudoku or creating a soil battery, with each lesson spotlighting a Latinx scientist.

 Her club is centered on three key points: “inclusivity, both for people who are Latinx and are not; awareness of the contributions of Latinx people to STEM; and exploration into different areas of STEM.”

When Lopez Santiago first began her club last year, she had a much higher turnout than she expected. Lopez Santiago attributes that to her club being a place where “you can meet and discuss things with other people who have similar interests and similar backgrounds.” The club is not confined to Latinx students, and serves as a “way for [students] to build community…[for students that] wouldn’t meet each other in other contexts.”

Beyond her club, Lopez Santiago believes that more focus should be put on scientists of all races and ethnicities in science classes. Davis agrees that promoting positive images of minorities in STEM and innovation would help combat the lack of representation. He suggested that providing school-wide events and creating excitement about the paths that STEM offers could be another route to increasing representation in STEM classes. McHugh adds that in combating underrepresentation in the Engineering Pathway, Wilson can reach out to middle school students to begin introducing the concepts and garner interest.

McHugh’s, Kpoognon’s, and Davis’ classes are made up of male students, the majority of whom are white. Role models and environments play a large part in a student’s class decision. Lopez Santiago added that when classes lack diversity and historical figures that students study are confined to one demographic, “that leads kids to have the idea they can’t envision themselves in STEM, or it’s scary to try.”