Despite rapid workforce growth in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields in the U.S., Black and Latinx workers remain underrepresented, according to a recent Pew Research Center Analysis.
Black workers make up 11% of all employed adults, but only 9% of those in STEM occupations, and just 5% in some fields such as engineering. Latinx workers make up 17% of total employment across all occupations, but just 8% of all STEM workers.
"Based on the need to remain on the cutting-edge of technology in the U.S., we should be particularly mindful of reaching such 'untapped talent,'" says Valerie Jones Taylor, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Lehigh University with a joint appointment in Psychology and Africana Studies. Taylor's research focuses on identity-related questions and intergroup interactions. She is particularly interested in "... studying negative racial stereotypes, where they come from and how they can impact our interracial interactions."
Based on evidence, Taylor believes that the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in STEM could be driven, at least in part, by negative interracial interactions that, over time, erode a sense of belonging among STEM-interested students from underrepresented groups.
Taylor has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant to explore the effectiveness of using virtual reality as a tool to combat negative interracial interactions and, ultimately, transform the culture of STEM. Through laboratory experiments and a longitudinal field study, Taylor and her team plan to test the efficacy of examining STEM-related interracial interactions in virtual reality compared to real-life interactions; identify the number and type of virtual reality interracial contact necessary to improve racial attitudes and behavior in STEM; and, examine whether repeated virtual reality interracial contact leads to improved intergroup relations and increased racial and ethnic minority representation in STEM.
The project will focus first on White participants, though this is simply a place to start, not an end point. White students often lack opportunities for interracial contact in STEM contexts, thereby limiting their access to the documented benefits of greater interracial contact, such as reduced interracial anxiety and racial bias.
The team will collaborate with high school students from Black Girls Code (based in Oakland, CA) on the creation of the virtual reality STEM interracial interaction simulations for teens. According to Taylor, the data collected during the design and programming of the virtual reality simulations will inform the team's understanding of the experiences, challenges, and strengths of STEM-interested high school girls from an underrepresented group.
Research has shown that the more contact people have with individuals who are different from themselves (such as those from other racial/ethnic groups), the less prejudice they will have towards those from different backgrounds, says Taylor. Increased contact also leads to greater empathy and decreased anxiety during interactions with individuals from those groups.
"However, I was really struck by the paradox in this work: that on the one hand, interracial interactions are a cause for a lot of racial tension and challenges that people have, but on the other hand, when a person does have those interactions, it can, over time, increase their interracial comfort and reduce their anxiety," says Taylor.
Clinical psychologists have employed virtual reality simulations to help people reduce phobias, such as a fear of flying or public speaking, for more than 20 years, says Taylor.
"People engage in 8 to 10 virtual sessions that produce real anxiety, measured both physiologically and psychologically," says Taylor. "Over these 8 to 10 sessions, their negative physiological and psychological effects are significantly reduced, and psychologists observe an increase in what are called 'approach behaviors,' or movement towards an object or person, rather than away from it."
This was compelling to Taylor because the same psychological and physiological markers that clinical psychologists observe in individuals dealing with phobias can be found in individuals during challenging interracial interactions.
During particularly charged interracial interactions, "people clam up, they cannot speak, they get physiologically hot and overwhelmed, and this response can break down the interaction," says Taylor. "The theory is that by engaging in these virtual interracial contact sessions, people will build their 'interpersonal competency muscles' and that practicing in a virtual space could lead to improved engagement with a live person of a different race. Such practice is important for at least two reasons. First, it provides individuals with opportunities to make mistakes in interracial interactions in a virtual environment that is less likely to impact the well-being of real-life racial/ethnic minorities. Secondly, and importantly, given that difficult interracial interactions can be very taxing and more costly for minorities, this approach reduces the burden from racial/ethnic minorities to be the 'practice agents' of others' behavioral and attitudinal change."