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'Representation matters' | Nonprofit engages children, works to create diverse generation in STEM fields

"If you don't see people doing those particular jobs, you don't think you can do them," said one advocate for more diversity in STEM fields.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — New data from the Pew Research Center shows that Black and Hispanic workers continue to remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Hispanic adults make up just 8 percent of that field, while Black adults make up 9 percent. Many people fighting to increase those statistics by getting the attention of the younger generation, inspiring kids to pursue careers in STEM regardless of their backgrounds.

The numbers aren't surprising to Candice Halbert. 

"The majority of the time I'm the only Black person in the room, sometimes I'm the only woman in the room and sometimes I'm both," she said. 

Throughout her career, she's seen a difference. She said it hasn't just been physical differences between her and her coworkers, but also a difference in the opportunities given to her.

Halbert works as a scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and getting there wasn't easy.

Credit: YO-STEM

"I always kept getting, 'your résumé is impressive, but you don't have work experience,' over and over again. It's like, how do you get experience if you won't hire me?" she said. "People have got to commit to hiring, recruiting and retaining diverse talent."

She's on a mission to make sure the younger generation doesn't also feel those barriers, so she created the Knoxville area nonprofit Youth Outreach in STEM

"We serve underserved communities which are cultural minorities, LGBTQ+, women and low socioeconomic backgrounds," she said.

Programs at the nonprofit focus on helping children by providing resources and mentors to show them anything is possible, and that they have a place in STEM fields.

Credit: YO-STEM

"Representation matters. That's why those numbers look terrible," she said. "If you don't see people doing those particular jobs, you don't think you can do them."

She hopes it will make a difference in their lives and in the field, giving kids the inspiration to pursue their dreams while helping improve STEM fields by increasing the pool of different perspectives in them.

You can find more information about YO-STEM here

The Boys and Girls Club and Centro Hispano also have a number of STEM programs available. Yet, some officials said they have seen a similar trend as Halbert.

"Unfortunately, I've also found that the underrepresentation of Latinos in STEM is not only a function of access to education and experiences because I've worked with some outstanding Latino professionals trained in STEM fields that have trouble securing employment in our region despite their degrees," said a spokesperson with Centro Hispano.

"So while we will always push STEM education with our youth, I hope that those making hiring decisions in the STEM fields also consider diversifying their recruitment and retention efforts."