In Tapia’s high school, the student body consisted mostly of poor, white kids from places like Arkansas and Oklahoma. As the top performer in his math class, he wasn’t encouraged to attend college.
“Oh, you like people,” advisors would say. “Maybe you should be a social worker, gardener or mechanic.”
Never an engineer. Never a physicist. The bar was set low.
Support on the homefront wasn’t much better. Tapia’s parents – Mexican immigrants who moved to America as teenagers – didn’t finish high school.
Without the proper guidance, he enrolled in local community college, excelling in math.
There, a professor finally urged him to pursue the field at UCLA.
This turning point – having someone believe in his abilities – laid the groundwork for the success Tapia now enjoys as director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education at Rice.
In this role, he champions diversity in the sciences and engineering, trying to fill the gaps that nearly kept him from achieving the American dream.
Dr. Tapia in his cap and gown!
“I feel bad when I think back to those days,” said Tapia. “I never got a feeling of encouragement and drive to pursue a professional career in STEM.”
More than 60 years later, this bias still lingers as many minority students don’t get the reinforcement they need.
While diversity in STEM at universities has improved, Tapia said, the numbers aren’t what they seem. Especially at Ivy League institutions, international students – people born in Colombia or Argentina – make up a large percentage of minority student body populations.
“Our domestic Hispanics, like me, who are products of the U.S. and had to experience extra baggage in our early years … we’re not included at all,” Tapia said. They don’t make the distinction between foreign and domestic.”
In 2011, people of color – expected to account for more than 40 percent of the U.S. population by 2050 – only represented 12.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering, according to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.
Women are another underrepresented group seeing flat – and sometimes decreased – enrollment in STEM subjects.
For example, women represented 23 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science in 2004 and just 18 percent in 2014, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse.
Many attribute this disparity to a lack of role models in STEM fields.
In engineering, for example, only 15.7 percent of tenure-track faculty in the subjects are women, according to a study cited by the Society for Women Engineers.
“Gender is still not an issue that’s been adequately addressed in engineering,” said James Duderstadt (NMTI 1991). “If you look at some areas of science – chemistry, biology, etc. – women have become dominant. But not in engineering or physics.”
While president of the University of Michigan from 1988 to 1996, Duderstadt found that more minority and women faculty were needed – especially at the graduate level – to encourage prospective students.
Progress, however, was slow. Search committees and their narrowly self-selected qualifications for new hires did not leave room for much diversity.