In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Expanding Engagement in STEM

Monday, February 1, 2021

Author: Latonia M. Harris

What might the US engineering community look like in 50 years? As an African American woman I belong to an underrepresented group in this community. My story may provide some clues on how to ensure a robust engineering pipeline.

Born in Selma and raised in Detroit, I come from a working-class family; neither of my parents completed college and not all of my grandparents completed high school. I studied at well-respected universities and earned a BSE, MS, and PhD in chemical engineering. Today, I lead multidisciplinary teams in a large pharmaceutical company, developing transformational cancer therapies to improve the length and quality of life for patients who have very little hope.

I am passionate about my work in the pharmaceutical industry, and I love my career. One of the few things I am more passionate about is finding ways to support American youth in achieving academic excellence and considering careers in STEM.

My election this year to the NAE triggered deep self-reflection. What made the difference in my life? What can concerned individuals do to ensure a positive transformation in the US STEM community over the next 50 years?

Challenges in the US Engineering Community

Young Americans are not drawn to engineering in numbers sufficient to meet the demand for STEM expertise in industry. The United States needs to fill 3.5 million STEM jobs by 2025, but 2 million of them will go unfilled because of a lack of highly skilled candidates (Deloitte 2018).

Women, Hispanics, and African Americans are underrepresented in US industry and academic engineering.

  • Although women are half the US population, they earned 26 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2018—an increase from 2009, when they received 19 percent.
  • Hispanics represent 15.3 percent of the US population and received 11.4 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2018, up from 6.6 percent in 2009.
  • African Americans are 13.4 percent of the US population, but received only 4.2 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2018—less than the 4.6 percent they received in 2009 and 5.4 percent in 2002 (Roy 2018; Yoder 2011).

Despite these statistics, I can imagine a bright future where engineers and other STEM practitioners are held in high esteem; where talented youth, passionate about problem solving and innovating, earn engineering degrees and enter STEM disciplines at unprecedented rates; where the representation of engineers at all levels of academia and the corporate world is in line with gender and racial distributions in the population.

Being introduced to the engineering field at a young age in a fun and exciting way was an important milestone.

How can all children in America get the support and opportunities to reach their dreams, perhaps pursuing careers in STEM?

The Role of Support Programs

A comprehensive support system includes educators in and outside of the classroom who expose youth to the exciting world of science and engineering.

My experience is illustrative. In middle and high school, I participated in the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program. Through its Saturday programs, I was first exposed to engineering disciplines. That is when, as a high school freshman, I decided to earn a PhD in chemical engineering. Being introduced to the engineering field at a young age in a fun and exciting way was an important milestone.

University administrators also provided key support. They sponsored summer enrichment programs where high school children from Detroit public schools spent time living on the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor campus, learning about STEM and gaining confidence navigating the college environment. From the moment I stepped on campus, I was destined to be a Wolverine.

The University of Michigan Minority Engineering Program Office introduced me to role models and motivational speakers from industry, and the program’s dedicated staff helped me hone skills that have served me well throughout my career, demanding excellence every step of the way. Again, people invested in me as a young person, motivating me to do my best in college with a focus on STEM.

Industry partners also created early opportunities and meaningful STEM experiences. For example, during summers, Dow Chemical sponsored students to work under the supervision of fantastic STEM mentors. My daily interactions with scientists and engineers there solidified my commitment to become an engineer. And in college, organizations like the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, National GEM Consortium, 3M, and DuPont provided financial support through scholarships. Dow and DuPont offered undergraduate internships.

Throughout my career I have received support from mentors and sponsors who share best practices, serve as sounding boards, and help open doors that may otherwise have been inaccessible. I pay it forward, mentoring and sponsoring others as they navigate their careers.

The support I received on my engineering journey has been varied and extensive, but none was more impactful than that of my parents. They were the consistent positive force in my life, encouraging me to always do my best. They passed on their exceptional work ethic and taught me to respect others, valuing the gifts that each person possesses. Their support prepared me to withstand challenges throughout my life.

Realizing Change in the Decades Ahead

My story may seem simplistic to some: lots of support and opportunities lead to success. But the challenge of increasing the representation of minority groups in STEM is quite complex.

Experts have written volumes on the factors that contribute to underrepresentation of minority groups in STEM. Over the decades, countless organizations, with talented and caring individuals dedicated to improving and diversifying the American STEM community (Slaughter et al. 2015), have attempted to address these issues in the US education system.

To realize transformation during the next 50 years, we must stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from their experiences (Hrabowski 2015; Slaughter et al. 2015; Vest 2005). Successful programs should be expanded countrywide to benefit more youth. And programs must remain current to be effective. Education and STEM are currently “marketed” to children fascinated by TikTok and Instagram.

In addition, the challenge of increasing STEM diversity is intertwined with the quest for social justice, educational improvement, and gender equity. It is impossible to address diversity in STEM without considering these other factors.

Of all the support needed to equip children for STEM careers, I believe the most important comes from the individuals who interact with students daily, including parents, friends, teachers, and other caring adults.

Uniting as a community to support school-aged children can be very effective. This is particularly important for African American children, who may experience threats to their confidence, self-esteem, and sometimes physical safety. Individuals in communities can protect children from biases that might diminish their educational experience and assist them in managing in a world where they are too often invisible to people in positions of authority or, worse, where they may be subtly or overtly underestimated. We must protect the precious spirit of our children. They deserve a supportive environment in which to flourish.

Action is needed now to ensure a robust engineering community in which all groups and perspectives are well represented in 50 years. The engineering community will benefit from actively communicating with all youth about exciting and rewarding careers in engineering. With support from schools, universities, industry, and community, STEM careers will be accessible to a much larger portion of US society. Society and industry have much to gain from unlocking the immense potential in all children (Abreu 2014; Dzirasa 2020; Hofstra et al. 2020; Schindler 2019).


Abreu K. 2014. The myriad benefits of diversity in the workplace., Dec 9.

Deloitte. 2018. Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute Skills Gap and Future of Work Study. Hermitage TN.

Dzirasa K. 2020. Inclusion is our roadmap back to global science dominance., Jul 26.

Hofstra B, Kulkarni VV, Galvez SM-N, He B, Jurafsky D, McFarland DA. 2020. The diversity-innovation paradox in science. Proceedings, National Academy of Sciences 117(17):9284–91.

Hrabowski FA III. 2015. Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement. Boston: Beacon Press Books.

Roy J. 2018. Engineering by the numbers. Washington: American Society for Engineering Education.

Schindler J. 2019. The benefits of cultural diversity in the workplace. Forbes Coaches Council.

Slaughter JB, Tao Y, Pearson W. 2015. Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Vest CM. 2005. Educating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond. In: Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century. Washington. National Academies Press.

Yoder BL. 2011. Engineering by the numbers. Washington: American Society for Engineering Education.

About the Author:Latonia Harris (NAE) is scientific director at Janssen Pharmaceutical.