Below are edited excerpts from a recent interview.
What are the major barriers for getting more minorities attracted to STEM degrees?
Birney: The biggest problem is their lack of exposure to the fields. If they're not being exposed and don't know what the job careers in the sciences are, the first thing we must do is create those opportunities for students.
Hill: For these students, it's essential to have mentors. If they say, "OK, I'm going to be a biology major or chemistry major," we've got to be providing them with somebody who is going to oversee their progress and give them the mentoring they need because they may not be receiving it at home. For students of color, it's very powerful to have a mentor who is Hispanic or African-American, as an example of someone who has the skills and who has made it.
You mentioned some students may not be getting assistance at home. To what extent are the parents involved in their kids' education?
Birney: It's not necessarily that they don't want to be involved but that they're working and may have two or three jobs.They can't exactly show up for conferences. In California, we created evening classes for parents to participate in the learning process and to educate them on what should be done in the home. It's not necessarily a lack of knowledge but also a lack of time. Some younger parents have multiple children at home and their lives can be very challenging.
Hill: For parents who are trying to survive in the U.S. with a marginal income, they don't exactly know what their kids need when they get homework. Some students are being issued homework where you need broadband Internet at home. The digital divide is sadly alive and well in this country. New York is an amazing contradiction where you have some very wealthy folks living literally next door to the very poorest Americans.
What programs or initiatives in your program address the digital divide?
Hill: Mobile technology is certainly one thing we're looking at as a solution to this problem. We've found out that many of these students may not have a computer at home or broadband Internet access, but a significant number do have smart phones. That may be a way to keep them in contact with teachers. It's not just resources.
If parents are intimidated when their kids ask them for help with homework, the kids learn right away not to ask their parents for help. I think it's as simple as letting parents know it is OK not to know the answers. We want to focus on bringing that kind of support to parents and encourage parents to look up the information on their smartphones.
What training do teachers get to work with underrepresented communities facing so many barriers?
Hill: One of our partner schools is in East Harlem, an area that was historically Puerto Rican and Dominican. In just the last few years, there's been an influx from Southern Mexico, mainly from Oaxaca. Just as with the school leadership, you have committed young teachers, many of whom have degrees from really well-known schools. They are teaching a population of kids who, in many cases, have parents who are not fully literate in Spanish. The biggest problem is that parents are still mobile since they work in California during the harvest season, then return to New York. And a lot of these kids are not in the classroom a full 10 months out of the year. And how do you address that?