Alfonzo Porter is a contributor to The RootDC and the author of “More Like Barack, Less Like Tupac: Eradicating the Academic Achievement Gap by Countering Decades of the Hip Hop Hoax.” He is a speaker, consultant, former teacher and school administrator.
In order to fulfill the nation’s requirements, an estimated 1 million more STEM majors will be needed to fill future high-tech job openings.
African American students are on the brink of missing out on these prime opportunities. Meanwhile, the public and private sector alike is trying to help — with no significant change. For instance, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering has partnered with more than 50 universities around the nation to recruit, retain and produce African American STEM graduates. They have garnered substantial collaboration with the corporate community to focus on providing resources and financial support to minority students to persuade them to consider STEM.
Indeed, as far back as the 1970s educators, politicians, universities and business leaders have been engaged in a national full-court press to spark black kids’ interest in mathematical and scientific degrees. Yet the needle has barely budged. According to Project Step-Up (STEM Trends in Enrollment and Persistence for Underrepresented Populations), there has only been a 2 percent to 3 percent increase of African Americans in STEM professions over the past 30 years.
Still, blacks comprise roughly 12 percent of the U.S. population and 11 percent of all students attending school beyond high school. Last year, blacks received just 7 percent of STEM related bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees and only 2 percent of doctorates.
With the U.S. Labor Department informing us that only 5 percent of workers are employed in the fields related to science and engineering, the urgent need for scientists, mathematicians and engineers in the United States has now become a crisis that threatens the nation’s global competitiveness in the very near future. The unfortunate fact is that the number of students of all races receiving advanced degrees in these highly touted fields is trending in the opposite direction.
At some point, I fear that the anemic return on these investments may become discouraging, as companies may begin to look elsewhere for scientific and mathematical talent.
A few weeks ago, I was invited by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) to participate as a panelist for her annual Science and Technology Braintrust. The event, billed as a forum to discuss vital strategies to engage black students, was part of the larger Congressional Black Caucus Foundation convention. The summit was abuzz with the theme of addressing the questions surrounding the low participation rates of black students in STEM.
It appeared as though every black scientist, engineer and mathematician in the country had converged upon Washington with the singular focus of compelling black kids to consider the lucrative and burgeoning field of STEM.
With such a groundswell of support and effort, the larger question has to be, why do black students fail to avail themselves of the opportunities being presented to them?
On one hand, many students are plagued by issues of self-doubt, living down to stereotypes and discouragement to tackle difficult course work. The fear of isolation from peers, community and even family weighs heavily on students when considering whether to commit themselves to advanced study. Further, the self-defeating perceptions about science and math being too hard can intimidate even the brightest kids.
Yet, despite every effort to provide equal access to a top-quality education, far too many kids are not prepared. Self-discipline and the willingness to push themselves academically in the absence of teacher or parental prompting is a challenge for minority students. For us to address the scholastic problems of students, we need more intrinsic motivation from each student.
So, what can we do?
First, increase the size of the STEM pipeline and cast a wider net. Second, change the composition of the pipeline to include all students. Third, engage more mentors and role models early on. And, finally, we should follow the lead of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). These schools produce 19 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 38 percent of blacks with degrees in the biological sciences, 31 percent in math, 35 percent in computer science, 34 percent in the physical sciences and 22 percent in engineering. However, with HBCUs comprising a mere 3 percent of all colleges and universities nationally, they are still not making enough of a dent in meeting the demand for STEM talent.
As a key priority, the Obama administration has proposed an investment of $100 million to STEM teachers and an additional $80 million to expand effective models of teacher preparation to help train 10,000 STEM educators per year.
Preparation for success in the STEM area must begin before a child is enrolled in kindergarten. Introducing these opportunities early and reinforcing the possibilities with outreach to parents could be the missing link in persuading our students to take the lead in determining their futures.