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FEATURE: Untapped Potential


Fewer than 5% of engineering graduates are African-American. Now, some schools and organizations are working to change that, with specialized camps and academic incentives. Will it be enough?

As an honors student in high school, Terrence Mosley had his pick of career paths. Would it be architecture? Business? Engineering? “When it came down to it, mechanical engineering stuck out,” he recalls. He credits his guidance counselor and the government’s occupational handbook for helping him make the call. “Once I got to college, I never had a change of heart.” Today, he works as a quality manager at Delphi Packard in Brookhaven, Miss.

But Mosley’s success story is an anomaly: Most African-American students aren’t exposed to engineering as a career option, and fewer are prepared to study it. Out of those who do pursue engineering in college, more than half drop out.

While African-Americans make up nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population, they earned 4.9 percent of the engineering undergraduate degrees awarded in 2007. Asian-Americans, in contrast, represent 4 percent of the population and 13.3 percent of engineering graduates. While the stream of African-Americans going into engineering has slowly increased since the 1970s, the numbers have leveled off in recent years, even as the number of Hispanics, another traditionally underrepresented minority, has edged up slightly. One fourth of African-Americans still live in poverty.

Out of 73,315 engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded last year, 3,279 went to African-Americans.

Set against the country’s overall engineering shortage, which will be exacerbated in coming years by the retirement of baby boomers, the need to tap into the potential of underrepresented minorities has become more urgent — both for educators and industry. “Corporations that are heavily reliant on engineering are seeing the difficulty in the pipeline and they are worried about the future: Will they be able to hire enough engineers?” says John Winn, former Florida commissioner of education and chief program officer for the National Math & Science Initiative (NMSI), a group formed to address the shortage of students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. Their worry is well-founded: The National Science Foundation estimates that the U.S. will need 20 percent more engineers by 2010 but the pool of qualified grads will expand by just 2 percent. Meanwhile, minorities make up about one-third of the college-age population — a figure that is expected to climb to more than half by 2050.

At the National Society of Black Engineers’ Summer Engineer Experience for Kids (SEEK) camp, young students learn the basics of engineering through hands-on projects.Beyond the overall national need for more engineers, industry has come to realize that recruiting a broad range of employees is just good business. “When you have a diverse team, you come up with a better product,” says Joe Saliba, a former dean of engineering and interim provost at the University of Dayton.

The challenge for educators starts early. Fewer African-American students than whites receive adequate preparation for college in general, “and it’s more pronounced in STEM subjects,” says Winn. (Indeed, African- Americans are underrepresented across STEM professions, accounting for only 5.3 percent of doctors, for example). Engineering prerequisites, like calculus and physics, may not even be offered in some urban high schools with large numbers of African-American students. Only 12 percent of African-Americans take pre-calculus, compared with 25 percent of white students, and just 5 percent go on to calculus, according to Richard Harris, the director of Northeastern University’s multicultural engineering program. Those who do overcome poor schooling often face an uphill battle in engineering school. “The disparities between the competencies are huge,” notes Saliba. “If you’re in a class with students who come from schools with great resources and you come from an inner city school, it can be very discouraging.”

Because of the relatively small number of practicing black engineers and even fewer engineering faculty, African-American students lack exposure to role models. According to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), there were 11 African-American engineering deans in 2007 out of more than 360 deans at accredited schools nationwide. And of the engineering faculty with Ph.D.s at four-year institutions, 4 percent are African-Americans. Even that number dips precipitously if you discount the faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), says NACME President and CEO John Brooks Slaughter. “It’s a vicious cycle,” says Slaughter. “The more minority faculty that exists, the more likely we’re going to get that pipeline filled.”

Of 9,065 Ph.D.s awarded, African-Americans received 123.

There are signs of change, however. In recent years, corporations and their foundations have begun to step up to the plate to fund more outreach initiatives for African-American students. “In the last five years especially, there’s been a recognition that [corporations] are going to need to be involved to be successful,” says James Goecker, engineering dean at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Motorola Foundation, for example, made 100 grants this year, worth a total of $4 million, to programs that range from supporting robotics teams to funding alternative teaching certification for STEM teachers, nearly half of which are aimed at African-American students.

Mentors to the Young

FEATURE: Untapped PotentialOne Motorola beneficiary is the National Society of Black Engineers’ (NSBE’s) Summer Engineer Experience for Kids (SEEK). Co-sponsored by a handful of other corporations and the Society of Automotive Engineers, the free three-week camp targets urban African-American 3rd through 8th graders, introducing them to the basics of engineering through hands-on projects. The camp reaches out to children before they can shy away from math and science and exposes them to mentors — NSBE members — who look like them, says NSBE Executive Director Carl Mack: “These kids are seeing what I never saw growing up — an African-American engineer.” In its two summers of existence, SEEK has been a big hit: A survey of 250 6th through 8th grade participants in Columbus, Ohio, last summer found that 81 percent of them would choose engineering as a career.

The National Math and Science Initiative is another collaborative effort, on a larger scale. Founded a year and a half ago, the initiative is a public-private partnership that takes proven programs and scales them nationally, state by state. Its Advanced Placement (AP) Training and Incentive program has had some impressive results. Operating on the theory that stereotyping in AP recruitment is rampant — out of all the students passing AP exams nationally, only 2 percent are African-American — the program works to open up the elite courses to more students by raising funds for them to take the PSAT and challenging attitudes of teachers and administrators, effectively raising the bar for kids who often have little expected of them. “It’s not poverty, it’s very much an attitude of adults,” argues Winn. “They do not have the same expectations for African-Americans that they do for white students.” The efforts have paid off: Since the program’s inception in 10 Dallas schools eight years ago, the number of African-American students who pass AP exams there has gone from 29 to some 600. “It’s a very stark picture of what could be and should be,” says Winn.

Since 2001, the percentage of engineering graduates who are African-American has been essentially flat—between 4.9% and 5.4%.

Taking a cue from HBCUs, where the classes are traditionally smaller and the support network stronger, many universities are beefing up their outreach and retention initiatives as well. Working with corporate sponsors and government grants, Rose-Hulman is taking a multi-layered approach to bolster its ranks of African-Americans and other minorities. University students work with Indiana’s homework hotline to dish out math and science help to kids ages 6-12. The school’s Recruitment Into Science and Engineering (RISE) project provides a framework to expose local middle and high school students to engineering with mentoring by NSBE members and hands-on projects like building a balsa wood bridge. And Operation Catapult, a residential three-week summer engineering program, is free to any minority who wants to attend. In the last two years, half the participants have returned to Rose-Hulman as freshmen. “Those successes are incremental but we’re building on them,” says Dean Goecker. “We’re trying to break down every barrier we can think of, whether it be cost, education, or distance.”

At Northeastern University, Harris attacks the problem on a number of fronts, including hosting “minority days” on campus. A two-week summer science camp through a partnership with ExxonMobil attracts a diverse group of Boston-area 6th-8th graders, following up with them and their parents several times a year to ensure they’re aware of math and science requirements for engineering. A more advanced summer bridge program provides not only a preview of basic engineering but focuses on building the confidence of young African-Americans. The multicultural program also stresses undergrad research the summer after freshman year, to boost students’ résumés with an eye toward Northeastern’s co-op program and ultimately, grad school. The result? A retention rate for African-Americans that’s double the national average.

Working in Groups

Other successful initiatives have come from students themselves. Mosley says an informal support group among his grad school colleagues at Georgia Tech was invaluable. “We taught each other and brought each other up to standard,” he says. “African-Americans tend to work better when we can work in groups.” Institutions need to work on increasing the comfort level for African-Americans, he adds. “If not, retention is going to be iffy.” At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a couple of grad students formalized that notion by developing the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers (ACME), a model that helps support and pace students’ research through weekly meetings. Since its start in 2003, the program has helped graduate 13 Ph.D.s and 9 Master’s degree recipients.

Untapped Potential.


While encouraging, these successes only go part way. What’s needed, argues Harris, is a “national commitment” to develop students’ full potential.

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.




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