Texas police arrested Ahmed Mohamed because he was interested in engineering, took the initiative to do an independent project, and brought it in to his teacher to show the seriousness of his interest. That's exactly what American politicians, pundits and education officials keep saying America wants students to do: demonstrate an interest in STEM (science, tech, engineering and mathematics).
It's still all too rare. The US ranks relatively poorly among developed countries in math and science education. An international test of "adult competencies" found that 58 percent of Millennials have poor skills in solving technology problems — which STEM advocacy group Change the Equation points out is ironic, since 83 percent of Millennials sleep with their smartphones.
We know there are more students interested in STEM at Ahmed's age than people working in the STEM industry as adults. And the people who "drop out" of STEM are disproportionately women and minorities. The United States is getting substantially more diverse, but STEM professions aren't keeping up.
The "leaky pipeline": women and minorities have trouble translating their interest in STEM into careers
The easiest defense that any individual CEO will give you if you ask about why white men are overrepresented in his business (or industry) is that it's a "pipeline problem": there simply aren't enough not-white-men people who are interested in going into the industry, and are able to develop the qualifications that can get them hired.
But there's very suggestive evidence that what's really going on is something some educators and experts call the "leaky pipeline": many women and "underrepresented minorities" (essentially, people who aren't white or Asian American) start their educational careers interested in STEM, but drop out of the field before they finish their schooling, or don't go into it as a profession. They're not simply washing out because they can't cut it — many of the students who "drop out" of STEM are extremely proficient. They're (on the face of it) choosing to leave, or failing to find a reason to stay.
According to the National Science Foundation, 42 percent of college freshmen interested in majoring in STEM are women. (There's no comparable stat for STEM-interested students who are underrepresented minorities.) Here's what happens to those proportions through a student's higher-ed career:
You'll notice this isn't just a problem of students completing degrees, or pursuing advanced degrees. It's a problem of getting people to go into STEM fields after they've gotten STEM degrees. According to All Digitocracy, only 5 percent of women with undergraduate degrees in STEM are holding jobs in the field 2 years after graduation; only 3 percent of them are employed in STEM 10 years after graduation.
It's hard for people to stick around in fields where they're told they don't belong
So what does all of this have to do with Ahmed Mohamed? He's not really an "underrepresented minority": kids born in the US to Middle Eastern/North African immigrant parents have educational outcomes that look much more like white and Asian American students than like African-American or Latino ones. And he's certainly not a woman.
But what school authorities and police officers taught Ahmed Mohamed this week is that he's not just a science student, he's a Muslim science student. His religion is more important in how people react to him than his academic interests, and it separates him from his role models and peers. That subtle message of non-belonging is one of the ways that the "leaky pipeline" allows people who aren't white (or Asian) men to give up on their interests in STEM and walk away.
You can see this in the research around white teachers being less likely to view their black students as "college-ready." You can see it in research showing that girls outscore boys on STEM tests when the tests are graded anonymously — but that when names are on tests, boys outscore girls; and the subsequent finding that girls dissuaded from STEM by school experiences are less likely to go into the field in later life.
Or you can look at what women working in STEM told a trio of researchers (in a study published by the University of California-Hastings) they'd experienced in the workplace:
Microaggressions aren't the biggest problem with STEM education — but they're an easy one to fix
If you've been paying attention to the current debate over the "new political correctness" on college campuses, slights like these might sound familiar to you. They're microaggressions: insignificant comments or interactions that aren't intended maliciously, but that end up making their targets feel uncomfortable or insulted. Often, microaggressions work by reminding someone that he or she doesn't "belong" in a certain space. Mistaking a black woman scientist for janitorial staff is one way to do this. Arresting a young Muslim scientist because you're worried his electronic clock is a bomb is another way.
One of the biggest critiques of the concept of microaggressions is that there's a lot more to racial and gender inequality than how one person behaves toward another, and it can be myopic and unhelpful to focus on, literally, the micro-level of inequality. And that's certainly true. Ahmad Mohamed is educated enough to make an electronic clock as a ninth-grader; he goes to a school that prides itself on its STEM program, and his junior high school had a robotics club. There are plenty of ninth-graders out there who do not have those advantages. It might even be nice if tech giants like Facebook and Twitter, which have been falling over each other to tell Ahmed he's awesome, put some of that effort into supporting students who are interested in STEM but don't yet have the resources to make their own electronic devices.
More broadly, there are plenty of causes for the "leaky pipeline": students whose high schools don't teach them enough math to succeed in STEM programs in college; students who simply aren't as prepared for college socially as their peers; a society that makes it hard for women to balance their families with their careers. It would be silly to think that America can fix whatever STEM readiness problems it has just by focusing on the Ahmed Mohameds of the world.
But the flip side of that argument is that, compared to structural inequality in American education or American society, microaggressions are relatively easy to fix. An individual school administrator or local police officer can't change the fact that her students are going to be more or less prepared for college than students at poorer or richer schools. She can change how she treats one of her nonwhite students when he comes into class with a myterious ticking object that he explains is a clock.