STEM Beats - November 2016

New data: Are Women Making Gains in Computing and Engineering?

November 22, 2016

In the past three weeks, we have been examining recent data on computing and engineering degrees. We have already reported encouraging news about the overall growth in those degrees and mixed news about the extent to which African Americans and Latinos are sharing in that growth. Today's blog examines how women are faring in these critical fields. Our verdict: there is not much to celebrate yet, but there may be some glimmers of hope.


Let’s start with the glass half empty. The following chart looks far too familiar, even though it contains some new data on the gender disparity in computing degrees:

 Women still lag far behind in computing degrees

While men have surged past their 2004 peak by a healthy 27 percent, women just barely cleared their 2003 peak last year.

And the above chart conveys the good news, relatively speaking: it represents trends in bachelor’s and higher degrees, where women fared the best. Women have lost far more ground in degrees and certificates below the bachelor’s level:

For women, computing credentials below the bachelor's level plummet

Women’s share of bachelor’s and higher degrees tumbled by more than six percentage points since 2001, but their share of sub-bachelor’s credentials plunged by more than 20 percentage points over the same period.

Why is this a concern? Economists expect computing jobs to surge in the coming decade, and computing jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree are no exception. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, between 2014 and 2024, jobs for computer support specialists and web developers will grow by 11.6 and 26.6 percent, respectively. Over that decade, these two occupations will generate 265,000 job openings whose average pay well exceeds the $36,200 average salary for all occupations. The past decade and a half have seen women's prospects for such good jobs plummet.

And now for the glass half full: While some of these data seem discouraging on their face, the charts do suggest that we have finally stanched the bleeding. The decline in computing degrees and certificates going to women has leveled off.

There may be much better news to come. The last five years have seen an unprecedented national focus on girls in computer science. It will take a few years yet for that focus to affect college graduation data.


At first blush, there seems to be more to celebrate in engineering than in computer science. Women made small gains in engineering degrees at the bachelor’s level and above, even as they earned a declining share of credentials below the bachelor’s level:

Engineering: women gain in bachelor's and higher degrees, fall in subbacalaureate

The share of engineering degrees that went to women climbed 2.4 percentage points between 2009 and 2015. The decline in sub-bachelor's degrees is less concerning in engineering than in computing, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects little or no growth in engineering technology jobs, which generally require less than a bachelor's degree.

 Things are moving in the right direction for women in engineering, but too slowly. At this rate, women will have to wait roughly three quarters of a century to reach parity with men.

A closer look at the data reveals stronger trends in master’s and doctoral degrees since 2001:

Engineering: women make the largest gains in master;s and doctoral degrees

Women's share of master's degrees rose by almost four percentage points between 2001 and 2015, and their share of doctoral degrees advanced by more than six and a half percentage points. Women's percentage of bachelor's degrees experiences a slow and steady slump before 2009 but women have regained all of their lost ground since then. Initiatives to diversify graduate degrees may be bearing fruit. 

These data suggest that initiatives to diversify graduate degrees may be paying off, which in turn can promote more female role models among U.S. engineering professors[i] That said, we still have far to go before women receive a proportionate share of doctoral degrees.

It is simply too early to tell whether these charts carry the seeds of hope. They reflect what was going on in elementary and secondary schools as long as 20 years ago, and it will take at least as long to see the full impact of our current efforts to encourage girls to pursue STEM fields. If anything, they remind us that we cannot take our foot off the gas.

[i] Data are scarce on how many women serve on engineering faculty. Researchers should study whether women’s progress in doctoral degrees is affecting the gender balance of engineering departments.

Tags: women & girls, computer science, engineering

The Real Heroes of Modern Medicine

November 14, 2016

Google Doodle Covers Sir Frederick Grant BantingSay Happy Birthday to Sir Frederick Grant Banting, a Canadian scientist who became the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in Physiology or Medicine and the subject of today’s Google Doodle. Hats off to Banting whose interest in solving a world problem—diabetes—resulted in the mass production of insulin for medical treatment.

Banting’s extraordinary work in insulin built on the ideas and experiments of other scientists. English physiologist Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer created the term “insuline” after predicting its absence from the pancreas caused diabetes. The published works of Sharpey-Schafer and a few others led Banting to believe he could isolate and extract the insulin from the pancreas. Banting shared his 1923 Nobel prize with John James Rickard Macleod, a physiology professor at the University of Toronto. Macleod provided the lab space as well as an assistant, Dr. Charles Best, for Banting to begin experimenting with the isolation. In 1921, the talented team successfully extracted insulin from animal pancreases. And by 1922, insulin trials began with injections for humans. Banting and team allowed the patents for their methods to stay with the University of Toronto. So later that year in 1922, the University issued licenses for developing manufactured insulin.

Banting’s contribution goes beyond just STEM and reaches the millions of people who could live with diabetes long after his passing. But it all began with an inquisitive mind and a plan to pursue a solution. It’s exciting to think what other world problems real STEM heroes will work together to vanquish.

New Data: Minorities Gain Some Ground in Computer Science and Engineering Degrees

November 9, 2016

On October 26, we shared some good news about degrees in computer science and engineering: Since the recession, they grew much faster than degrees and certificates overall. Today, we take a closer look at students of color in those fields, and we have at least some good news to share--mixed with much that should concern us.

For every race, the number of bachelor’s and advanced degrees in computer science and engineering has grown faster than the overall population between 18 and 24.  In other words, your typical black, Latino, or white person of college age was more likely to earn one of these degrees in 2015 than in 2001.  On balance, that’s good news for everyone.

 Growth in cs & engineering degrees chart

Of course, it’s far too soon to declare victory, because a small number degrees can grow by a large percentage and still be a small number of degrees.

The more important question is whether people of color are earning degrees in proportion to their share of the population. In the best of all possible worlds, for example, Latinos would earn 21 percent of degrees, because they comprise 21 percent of the college-age population.

The reality falls far short of that ideal, but there are glimmers of hope.

African Americans

For African Americans, the picture in computer science is mixed. The share of bachelor’s degrees they receive has fallen off since the high point of 2007, but new data suggest that their share of master’s degrees surged for almost a decade before retreating somewhat after 2013. African Americans are actually overrepresented among Americans who receive master’s degrees.[i] 

Computer science: Af Am rise in master's and slip in bachelor's

Why? A report in Science Magazine cited this trend in Master’s degrees as early as 2011 and speculated that efforts to attract more African Americans into computer science graduate degrees were bearing fruit. That may well be true, but disappointing trends in bachelor’s degrees will surely thwart further progress in advanced degrees.

Alas, it is hard to find much good news about African Americans in engineering. Their share of bachelor’s degrees has declined slightly since 2005, and their share of master’s degrees has barely kept pace with population growth.

Af Am gain no ground in engineering degrees

This problem may arise from the fact that African American students have limited access to advanced high school classes—like calculus—that can be gateways to engineering in college. 


Latinos earn a smaller share of computer science degrees than African Americans do, but they are making steady, albeit slow, gains, mostly at the bachelor’s level.

Latinos slowly narrow the gap in computer science degres

If you look hard, you can see the gap between Latinos' share of bachelor's degrees (the dark blue line) and their share of the population (the red line) narrowing, especially after 2009. Since that year, Latinos’ share of bachelor’s degrees has risen roughly 2 ½ percentage points while their share of the population rose by less than a percentage point. In the previous six years, their share of bachelor's degrees had risen more slowly--roughly 1 ½ percentage points.

Latinos are also making gains in engineering:

Latinos narrow the gap in engineering degrees

Their share of bachelor’s degrees has risen almost four percentage points since 2007, roughly twice as fast as their share of the population over the same period. Master’s degrees have seen nearly parallel gains since 2009.

Why have Latinos gained in some areas where African Americans have been treading water? It’s hard to say without more evidence. More research could help us learn from our successes and replicate them.


Despite some encouraging signs, it’s hardly time to pop the champagne corks. If the pace of change doesn’t pick up, it would take more than a decade for Latinos to close engineering gaps, and even longer for them to close computer science gaps. African Americans would never close the gaps in bachelor’s-level engineering and computer science.

Yes, we have made some progress, but minority students’ current K-12 experience will impose a low ceiling on that progress. As CTEq’s state-by-state Vital Signs website demonstrates, students of color still have the least access to the resources, facilities, and classes that best prepare students for college-level STEM.

There are carefully-vetted strategies and programs that can help students overcome hurdles like these. For dozens of programs that can prove they’re making a difference, take a look at CTEq's STEMworks honor roll of effective STEM education programs. For all their accomplishments, programs like these are not going to close the gaps unless the nation rallies around them with the public and private commitment and resources they need to reach many more young people.

Incremental progress just won’t do as long as STEM literacy remains a gatekeeper to individual and national prosperity.

Stay tuned next week for the most recent data on women in computer science and engineering.

Tags: computer science, engineering, minorities

Quantitative Literacy for All

November 4, 2016

In 1816, Timothy Pitkin, U.S. Representative from Connecticut, wrote that “Political Arithmetick is an art daily growing more important in the United States.” He urged that data “…ought to be studied by all who aspire to regulate, or improve the state of the nation; and even by all who would judge rightly of their duties as citizens, and who are conscientiously scrupulous, even in private life, of so casting their influence into the scale of parties, as best to promote the general happiness and prosperity.”

Fast forward two hundred years and ask yourself how many of us understand statistical data well enough to be able to “improve the state of the nation.” Far too few is probably a good guess. This lack of knowledge empowers too many people to make outlandish assertions with apparent impunity—and that includes pitchmen, political candidates, pundits, and media figures.

Where is the outcry, for example, when the media report polls showing one candidate winning over the other when the difference is within the margin of error? It would be a welcome change if Americans en masse (politely, one hopes) called out reporters who mistakenly attribute the natural variability of a sample for the outcome of a horse race. 

Why don’t more editors chastise reporters and TV commentators who give solemn credence to the results of a single poll in the same way they demand three corroborating pieces of evidence for other pronouncements?  Why don’t more reporters acknowledge that some polls are widely seen as less reputable than others, due perhaps to inadequate sample size or a persistent demonstrated bias?

We don’t stand for any candidate or political point of view here—but we’re passionate about campaigning for quantitative literacy for all high school graduates.

In 1997, Lynn Steen warned that “an innumerate citizen today is as vulnerable as the illiterate peasant of Gutenberg’s time.” Surely that says it all.

Superhero STEMspiration

November 2, 2016

This Marvel Variant cover represents ScienceSome of the best known (and coolest!) scientists, mathematicians, and engineers come from the big screen. And whether you realize it or not, these fictional characters shape ideas about who should pursue STEM and who shouldn't. Marvel, the popular superhero comic book and box office hit creator, takes that mind-shaping responsibility quite seriously. This month, expect to see some super smart and diverse superheroes on the comic book stands. With these new takes on classic heroes, Marvel cleverly sends a message that celebrates the breadth of STEM fields while encouraging an untapped market's interest in those fields through relatable characters. Marvel is helping to save the STEM universe, one comic book cover at a time!

“Our characters have been exciting fans for ages,” says the senior vice president of print, sales, and marketing, David Gabriel. “With our new STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics] Variants, we plan to continue to motivate our fans to explore their passions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art, and math and present these disciplines through some of our favorite young heroes who are doing just that--following their dreams and preparing for the challenges that await them ahead.”

The STEM-themed covers feature some of your old favorites with an inclusive twist—like bi-racial Spider Man Miles Morales, Korean American Amadeus Cho as Hulk, and Tony Stark’s Iron Man successor 15-year-old African-American science genius Riri 

“[Riri’s character and story are] inspired by the world around me and not seeing that represented enough in popular culture,” says Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis.Williams. Also, expect introductions to new characters like GwenPool and Moon Girl. Marvel has evolved both the look and the stories of their comic book characters to better reflect today’s world. The creators seek to spark the academic genius in the leaders of tomorrow—no matter what those geniuses look like and where they come from.

As the next generation prepares to tackle the world’s toughest challenges, Marvel’s efforts to engage everyone through fiction bring us one step closer to STEMspiring many more young minds.

Photos provided courtesy of

Tags: women & girls, minorities