Are Low-Income Children Left Behind in STEM?

Some of the most brilliant students might never get a shot

11 January 2018

Stanford economist Raj Chetty set out to uncover who America’s most successful inventors are and what can be learned from them to stimulate innovation. In his study, he discovered that children from high-income households (those in the top 1 percent) are 10 times more likely to become inventors than those from homes with below-median incomes.

Chetty and his research team studied the backgrounds of more than 1 million inventors using a database that connects U.S. patent holders with information from birth, including their school districts and tax returns. The researchers then compared the patent holders’ third- through eighth-grade math and science test scores to those of public school students in New York City of varying economic backgrounds. (One study says that by eighth grade, nearly half of students lose interest or have deemed STEM fields irrelevant to their future.)

The findings show that there are large disparities by tax bracket and that becoming an innovator has little to do with innate ability. In other words, being an inventor relies upon two traits in the United States: excelling in math and science and being born into a high-income family.

One key factor, Chetty found, is that children who grow up in wealthier communities are often surrounded by people in STEM fields—including parents, neighbors, and mentors. Such exposure influences not only whether children grow up to become inventors but also the type of inventions they develop.

Children from low-income families are far less likely to be surrounded by innovators. Chetty calls such students “lost Einsteins.”

Helping students from lower-income communities become innovators is not only imperative for equality, according to the study, but also for the nation’s economic growth. Chetty concludes that more policies are needed to support science and innovation activities in underserved communities—which could include mentorship and internship programs as well as exposure through social networks.

What more can be done to get students from low-income households into STEM fields?

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