Science for Everyone
The good news is that more and more women and minorities are earning undergraduate and graduate science and engineering degreestheir numbers rose as much as 68 percent from 1985 to 1995, according to recent data from a series of Congressionally mandated reports prepared by NSF's Division of Science Resources Studies1.
The bad news is that they and persons with disabilities are still underrepresented when compared with the overall U.S. population of 18- to 30-year-olds.
While NSF as a whole is committed to ensuring that the nation's scientific and technical workforce is peopled by all those with gifts to contribute, this mandate is the specific mission of NSF's Division of Human Resource Development, a branch of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. Why is the crusade for equity allied so closely (though not exclusively) with NSF's educational aims? Because schools are fulcrums on which a young life can turn.
For example, when Tanya Lewis entered Louisiana's Grambling State University (GSU) as a freshman, she signed up to participate in an NSF-funded minority scholars program whose goal was to attract undergraduates to the school's physics and chemistry departments and guide them into graduate school. She struggled with class work and with problems in her personal life; midway through, she decided to take a full semester off. Even then, the mentor who had been assigned to Lewis kept calling.
"I remember sitting in my house and thinking about what it used to be like to get up and go to school everyday and do research," Lewis says. "I realized that I had a gift, and I missed it. I knew I wanted to spend my time doing research."
The next semester, with her mentor's support, she returned to GSU and graduated in 1995. The following fall, she entered graduate school.
Blinded at the age of five in a household accident, Lawrence Scadden, director of NSF's Program for Persons with Disabilities, knows first hand the frustrations that confront someone bucking society's notion of who should be a scientist.
"For far too long we've been closing disabled people out of science and math," says Scadden, who received his doctorate in psychology and has spent thirty years conducting research in human perception. "These attitudesthe myths and the ignorancehave created a major barrier that must be removed."
Mentors, culturally appropriate role models, networking, quality learning materials, research fellowships, access to skilled teachers and to assistive technologies that can help students overcome impairmentsthese are the factors included in myriad NSF programs aimed at knocking down barriers of poverty, discrimination, and distrust.