In a University of Wisconsin diversity forum event, participants emphasized the need to increase participation from underrepresented student populations in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

The underrepresentation of specific student groups in STEM fields is a national and international issue, said Gloria Hawkins, UW’s assistant dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health.  The shortage of people in the science and technology work force in the United States could threaten the nation’s position as a leader innovation and discovery, she added.

“I don’t believe we are giving a high priority to science and technology,” Hawkins said. “We all know that our demographics are rapidly changing in the society where the minority is underrepresented in science and technology. If we do not adequately prepare … for an opportunity in STEM for all, the U.S. will lose more grounds for science and technology.”

Jennifer Ball-Sharpe, Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant coordinator of Institute for Biology Education, said students do not have enough exposure to science before going to college, adding without adequate background information, they are scared to get into STEM fields.

Knowing students’ fear of participating in STEM, Ball-Sharpe said she has always tried to ensure students they have a variety of resources to support their studies and connect them with faculty.

To improve academic performance in STEM, Shirin Malekpour, director of Wisconsin Emerging Scholars Program, emphasized the need for practice studying science. The math department recently introduced a software program that requires students to correctly complete 85 percent of the assignments to move on to the quiz, she said.

Eve Tongdaeng, tutor coordinator at the Undergraduate Learning Center, also highlighted the importance of addressing both undergraduate and graduate students.

Because the focus is generally placed on current or incoming freshmen, especially in STEM fields where it is very competitive for underrepresented students, Tongdaeng said it is important to look at what happens after students complete their undergraduate work.

“[Since] engineers are predominantly white male[s], underrepresented students often feel alienated and isolated,” Tongdaeng said. “We always want to increase their participation by letting them know we’re here to help them and we have the academic support for them. Retention and graduation is basically our mission.”