How To Raise a Scientist

As a kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Jason Coleman loved to tinker with electronics, take apart household items, and build remote control cars. But he had no idea what an engineer was until after his first semester in college.

“I was doing engineering, I just didn’t know what it was called,” says Coleman, 32. “Growing up I wanted to be a pharmacist; I saw pharmacists and I heard stories about them making good money, but I never met engineers.”

Seun Phillips, on the other hand, grew up living with a civil engineer, his dad, in the same household, but before participating in a pre-college science program, he had no idea what his father or other engineers did from day to day. “The fact that I was good in math and science led me to be in the engineering realm,” says Phillips, 28. “I didn’t have exposure to what an engineer was, which speaks volumes to the fact that the STEM fields aren’t being promoted as much as they should be.”

Coleman and Phillips, products of the Chicago public school system, not only majored in mechanical and electrical engineering in college, respectively, but later worked several years as senior engineers at Motorola Inc., designing mobile phone devices. In 2009, the young men partnered with another friend, George Wilson, to launch Project SYNCERE (Supporting Youth’s Needs with Core Engineering Research Experiments), a free summer, after-school, and Saturday nonprofit program with the goal of increasing the number of minority, female, and underserved students pursuing careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

African American students are not pursuing STEM fields after graduating high school at the same rate  as students of other races.  From 2001 to 2009, no more than 8.5% of all students who progressed through college with a degree in science or engineering were black, and as of 2008, fewer than 4% of all people employed as scientists and engineers were African American, according to the most recently available data from the National Science Foundation.

Meanwhile, jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math are expected to grow by 17% between 2008 and 2018, nearly double the growth of all other fields, reports the U.S. Department of Commerce. STEM jobs also pay more. The average annual wage for all STEM occupations was $77,880 in May 2009, and only four of the 97 STEM occupations had mean wages below the U.S. average of $43,460, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This disparity in the face of expected job growth begs the question: How do parents, teachers, and schools produce more African American students who not only have an interest in STEM, but who also excel academically and envision  a future career for themselves in STEM?

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