Moving the Numbers

What must be done to prepare African Americans for opportunities in STEM fields

Ramsey Smith, Ph.D., is a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, whose duties include monitoring the atmosphere of solar planets, mainly Mars and Jupiter. Excited about his work, Smith, 31, only wishes more African Americans could experience the opportunities of such a dynamic field.

Although African Americans have made history-making contributions in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the talent pool of black professionals in these industries is extremely small. This concern has recently drawn more attention as President Barack Obama declares his desire to renew the country’s status as a world leader in science and technology innovation. In April, Obama pledged to devote more than 3% of the nation’s gross domestic product toward research and development in science and technology.

“We need to place a great deal of focus on developing that hidden talent and potential that exists in the underrepresented minority community,” comments Irving Pressley McPhail, Ph.D., executive vice president and chief operating officer of National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. “This is necessary so that our communities can be equal and powerful participants in the national effort in trying to draw a more robust STEM agenda for the United States.”

According to a January report by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that promotes and supports the fields of fundamental science and engineering, underrepresented minorities (blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, etc.) made up 10% of all scientists and engineers in business or industry in 2006.

The lack of black professionals entering the STEM workforce can be traced back to lecture halls. According to the NSF, out of whites, Asians, Hispanics, and blacks, blacks had the lowest enrollment numbers in undergraduate engineering programs between 1995 and 2006. They were preceded by whites, Asians, and Hispanics, respectively. Similarly, subsequent to whites, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics, respectively, blacks received the fewest bachelor’s degrees in engineering between 1997 and 2006. And in nine years, that number increased only slightly from 3,077 to 3,186.

However, blacks receive their bachelor’s degrees from undergraduate science programs at slightly higher numbers than Hispanics. And since 1997, blacks have been on a steady incline in earning these degrees––from 26,748 to 36,223.

Low numbers for enrollment in STEM programs extend even further back to the low percentage of minority high school youth graduating with appropriate math and science training. LaMont Toliver, director of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a program geared toward high school seniors with an interest in pursuing degrees in STEM fields, believes exposure to STEM studies needs to happen much earlier than high school.

“We are continually counting on people coming out of high school and we really need to be proactive about kindergarten to grade 12 students,” he says. “By the time students are in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade, they have already created a mind-set that they do not want to do math or science or that they cannot.  And by then it could be too late.”
Experts agree that at the elementary age, many children are deterred from pursuing an education in the fields of science and math for a variety of reasons that include lack of exposure, subpar student–teacher engagement, nonexistent school system support, and no access to working industry professionals as role models.

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