"Nobody's Figured It Out": Diversity and Outreach

Up Close on Outreach

The first step in solving the STEM diversity problem is effective outreach. That means capturing the attention and then time of groups under-represented in the field with engaging, substantive content. That means connecting this content to further, formal educational opportunities, which are then connected to related jobs that meet a timely need in STEM-related fields. And it will help to be recording and measuring things at each step to make sure design and implementation are meeting participants’ and organizations’ needs.

Not that the job is hard or anything. To put it another way, “Nobody’s figured it out,” says Freada Kapor, one half of the Kapor royal tech couple, along with husband Mitch (see Lotus Notes),

A Tough Nut

Indeed, the challenges are well and variously chronicled, from the confused passions around the Ellen Pao lawsuit to the slew of tech companies reporting abysmal diversity data to consistently low rates of STEM participation for women and minorities. But if we can’t crack the outreach nut, STEM diversity is going to turn into a problem like bad weather – everyone talking about it, but nobody doing anything to change it.

There is way too much money going into hackathons teaching privileged girls how to code without any tie-in to anything else.
— Freada Kapor

In a recent interview with Kim-Mai Cutler of Tech Crunch, the Kapors briskly dissect the blind spots and mis-steps that can hamstring efforts to diversify the homogenous STEM workforce. Freada sums up the problem: “There is way too much money going into hackathons teaching privileged girls how to code without any tie-in to anything else.”

Freada and Mitch Kapor

Freada and Mitch Kapor

The Kapors go on to tag-team a range of other issues. They deconstruct “pipeline” rhetoric as at once a deflection of responsibility from companies onto an under-resourced education system as well as reductive shorthand for a complex problem still incompletely mapped and analyzed.

While noting the wide prevalence of unconscious biases, they also report seeing affirmative action programs cripple minorities’ professional standing in the companies hiring them.

The Best and Brightest?

They puncture the self-congratulatory ethos of “meritocracy” in tech, where the best business ideas and best coders are assumed inevitably to rise to the top of a strictly results-driven industry. (Such was the subtext, for example, beneath Satya Nadella counseling women not to ask for raises … )

Says Freada, “If you believe you’re a meritocracy and you have numbers like everybody who has released their data, the implicit message is that Caucasian men are better than everyone else. Because that’s who is overrepresented.”

Mitch adds that the idea of a meritocracy, “is not completely wrong. It’s just wrong when it comes to matters of race and class.”



Outside the Comfort Zone

The interview is a tour de discursive force, trenchant guidance through the knotty issues that can bedevil STEM diversity efforts. They finish with a charge for organizations to look beyond familiar orbits, to distrust their own assumptions, to reach out to strategically useful partners in order to craft outreach programs with a chance to be truly effective.

This idea of blending the strengths and resources of varied actors underlies the logic that has enabled numerous partnerships across institutional boundaries to build dynamic STEM outreach programs.

Promising Approaches

Museums, for example, have taken this approach to heart.

Community Outreach in Higher Ed

Higher education institutions have put partnerships to good use in community outreach efforts.

  • Middle Tennessee State University recently won a grant from the National Science Foundation to fund scholarships in mechatronics for under-represented groups. With MTSU at the hub, the program links two- and four-year colleges, private industry, and local high schools in guiding a diverse student population through rich, varied learning experiences and into jobs that local employers need to fill.
  • Northern Virginia Community College is the centerpiece of an extensive regional STEM outreach program called SySTEMic Solutions. Designed with a sophisticated understanding of “pipeline” variables, this umbrella program connects K-12 schools, employers, and local universities with NVCC divisions. It serves to shepherd students from early exposure to STEM activities through formal schooling to work-ready standing as graduates.
  • At the University of Pennsylvania, the local and the international intersect at the school’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, led by long-time outreach innovator Ira Harkavy. Among other activities, Penn students go into West Philadelphia classrooms to lead STEM-related community service projects, educating students in science and engineering issues that have local import. Connected to similar projects in South Africa and China, Harkavy’s team is gathering a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data on how to connect with diverse populations of all kinds.

Start Engineering, our guidebook to engineering for high schools and middle schools, reviews the diversity imperative in engineering and showcases organizations active in the area. David Munson, dean of engineering at the University of Michigan, puts it this way: “ We cannot continue to draw students from only a quarter of the population. That makes no sense at all.” The book works well for orienting students and parents alike to the opportunities available in engineering studies.

What have you seen that works in outreach? Do you know of anyone who’s “figured it out?” Let us know or drop a comment below. And we hope you'll share any of these ideas with colleagues or friends who might be interested.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

And don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering outreach books, Start Engineering, and Dream, Invent, Create.

Photos: Closer look, Simon Blackley, used by permission; Mixture, Andria, used by permission.