Q Interview: Ray McGhee on Underrepresented Youth, STEM Pathways, and Workforce Development (Part 2)

Welcome to The Q — an interview series where we invite the Equal Measure team, clients, and colleagues from the field, to share their insights on evaluation, philanthropic services, emerging trends in the social sector, and more. In this interview, we sat down with Ray McGhee, who recently joined the Equal Measure team as a Senior Director. For nearly two decades, Ray has led research and program evaluations on efforts to improve students’ transitions from secondary school to postsecondary school and to the workforce. In part two of this two-part interview, Ray discusses trends and challenges in social sector activity around diversity in STEM.

Ray, as you assess broader social sector activity around STEM, in particular philanthropic investments in that area, what are some of the major trends that you’ve seen?

I think some of the positive trends focus on having different institutions work together — whether in a network or in a regional approach — to address issues of not only access but support. I think having higher education, workforce, economic development, and employers at the table in these collective impact partnerships is really critical to increasing participation among diverse groups in STEM. There have been many philanthropic efforts focused on supporting these kinds of approaches. More recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has adopted a collective impact approach. I think that’s a really promising trend.

In addition, there’s been a reconceptualization of what student support looks like and how we can target interventions like mentoring, tutoring, and remedial education. I think there’s been a good consolidation of initiatives, especially in the federal policy arena, that are going to be really helpful. For example, the NSF’s new INCLUDES program is an attempt to consolidate all of its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts into a major thrust to have a bigger impact.

I’ll add that looking back, many programs that focused on DEI — government programs in particular — shied away from any explicit emphasis on the participation of different ethnic groups and women. I think that’s really changing. There was an ethos of, “We want to promote opportunity for everyone,” but now we’re seeing efforts that emphasize interventions for underserved groups. That’s a positive trend.

What types of challenges have you seen?

Some of the challenges have to do with forging collective partnerships. At the moment, there’s a lot of fragmentation around efforts to increase STEM engagement. This fragmentation affects the ability of groups to sublimate their own personal agendas for an even larger agenda that focuses on promoting the common good.

Another challenge is the present social climate, and the unrest and unease that people feel, especially in underserved communities. I believe those feelings really affect people’s psyches as they think about whether they feel safe in institutions where they might receive the STEM training that can lead to fulfilling employment. I have to believe that youth in underserved communities are thinking, “Am I even welcome in these schools or workplaces? What’s it going to be like?” I think issues of institutional climate will remain a major challenge to address in STEM education, particularly in the postsecondary space.

Where do you see the STEM field heading in the next several years?

While I don’t see tremendous change occurring, I do think that we’ll begin to see traction in some of the current efforts that have a collective impact approach to increasing STEM participation. I’m hopeful that we’ll see some pretty impactful things happen on a regional basis.

I would hope too that there would be better alignment between secondary and postsecondary institutions in terms of the participation of students — so that there aren’t these huge gaps where students of color, for example, are egregiously behind other students in preparation for advanced courses.

So we have some challenges, but I’m also seeing some good things happen. My hope is that we can mitigate some of those challenges and increase engagement with on-ramps to STEM pathways leading to employment and fulfillment for youth from underserved groups.

Enjoyed this Q Interview? Here are more discussions and reflections on trends and challenges in the field of social change.

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