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The Urban Scientist

A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences

Want to see more Black Faces in Science & Technology? Here's how to make that happen today.

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Last week, Janaye Ingram, the Washington DC Bureau Chief of the National Action Network, wrote an impassioned article about the lack of diversity in science and technology careers, (We Need More Black Faces in Science and Technology Fields, The Loop 21, May 25, 2012). The impetus, this Best Buy Commercial:

Not a single woman. Not a single person of color. I read the rest of her article and I nodded in agreement with each sentence. (Read her piece, it is a must). I can totally relate to everything she is saying and where she is coming from. We do need to see more Black Faces representing the opportunities and successes possible in the science and technology. (Make me wish had a special African-American version #IamScience Story Collider to email to her right now). Though, I often complain about the numbers of African-American (and Latin and Native American) scientists and engineers there are, I have this to offer to Ms. Ingram. There are more of us than you may know. Students, inventors, professors and educators from a number and variety of STEM disciplines that could spin your head are at the helm and ready to be role models and community leader. Right now. The reality is that science doesn't command much media coverage and in special affinity media outlets, science is pretty much non-existent. Instead, young people get a lot of this:

An immediate remedy would be for The Loop 21 and other Black media outlets that claim to have commitments to sharing news and opportunities with the community to step their games up. Include more science and tech news and highlight African-American scientists, inventors, and engineers. Feature more positive news stories of the Influencers, the achievers and Movers and Shakers in Education, Science and Technology. Each year, The Root lists the Top 100 - 100 Most Influential African-Americans of the year. Ebony Magazine publishes a similar list, too. And guess what groups of people rarely make this list: Scientists and Engineers. I agree that our students should know names of amazing role models like Mae Jemison and March Hannah, but who is going to tell them about these amazing people? Where will they read about these role models or learn about all of the these exciting career opportunities in STEM? In media outlets like these. This is low-hanging fruit.

Which brings me to a point I make often: Black Media has an amazing opportunity (and responsibility) to serve its readers by providing more in-depth science news coverage, (1, 2). So much of what becomes our subjects of our conversations begin with what we read or heard on the radio. It's time the conversation to change, to mature. It's past time for the Black community to have very serious conversations about science which includes access to quality education so that young people can pursue these 21st century career opportunities.

I agree, education and economic opportunities are at the heart of this disparity. I support the work that the organizations like the National Action Network and the National Urban League are doing to address these issues, but these issues are complicated. It will not be resolved by simply signing new legislation or hosting forums. In November 2011, I spoke before Executive Committee of the St. Louis, Missouri NAACP chapter. As members of a local Biotech Diversity roundtable that aims to increase the number of African-Americans participating in the growing biotech industry in the region, they asked me one question. How do we increase the number of African-Americans entering science?

The short answer: We raise the profile of education and science in the African-American community and deliberately offer the resources that students need to be successful in science.

That takes time, and the how you tackle this problem depends on when you would like to see measurable results: in 5 years, 10 years or 25 years? I cannot refute the studies that say that interacting with students at younger and younger ages is the key to engaging students in STEM, but that also mean we don't get to see those Black Faces in Science Technology for at least a generation. That's a long time to wait.

I would like to see some immediate results, which would mean an increase in the number of students attaining degrees in STEM and accessing good-paying career opportunities before retire. That would mean focusing our community attention and resources for students who are high school seniors and presently enrolled in college. It means not addressing the problem of inadequate preparation at the system level. It means taking a tough stance and working with only those who possess the grit and tenacity to work their asses off in an overwhelmingly unfair system. It means possibly passing over some really passionate and bright kids who don't have the grades. (This last one really bothers me the most, because these are these students I really enjoy working with.) It means being hard and fast to get some impressive results. I told you it's complicated.

Right now, students do a whole lot of juggling in the dark - manage your time, take care of other relatives, work after school and in the summer, figure out how study, secure financial aid, etc. If we, the Black Community, are really serious about creating a formidable and sizable STEM workforce, then we need to put our money and energy where our mouths are. We've got to create an environment that allows students to put their full attention to doing well in school. It means organizations and individuals providing the financial aid, supplemental education, mentoring, as well as emotional/psychological support to these students so that they can focus on their studies - and nothing else.

That's a tall order I know. However, I believe it is possible and it starts with families (immediate and extended). When communities create an environment of support for learning and study, students benefit. Here are my list of recommendations I made to the St. Louis NAACP Executive Committee.

1. Provide parents with the resources they need to feel comfortable discussing science and technology. No adult likes to feel as if he/she cannot have a reasonable conversation about current topics with his/her child. I think social service and civil justice organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League are ideal for providing these resources to parents, grandparents and other adult influencers.

Parents set the tone and general path to achievement. In my many years of mentoring and working with young people, it’s parents/guardians who more than anyone else who really set the bar of expectations for students. Other adults can help and are definitely beneficial, but it’s parents who say to children I think a certain life is what I have in mind for you or what I will/not tolerate in your behavior that sets up what opportunities a child is able to take advantage of. Community organizations and church communities are great resources, providing a safe place for adults to speak with each other about parenting and opportunities for their teens. These organizations can foster important conversations such as:

  • Defining what success means to me
  • Developing an outline of success
  • Setting explicit expectations for my child

2. Re-prioritize education for children. Students whose parents/adult influencers who are unequivocal in their dedication to their children's' education - which includes comprehension, not just grades and good conduct and extra-curricular intellectual interests tend to be more driven, ambitious, and excel. This has to be more than words. For some families, this may be very difficult. Some students need to work or take care of other siblings/relatives in order for the household to stay afloat. This is why and where community support comes to play. When other adults, say extended family members - especially those without children or those who are better off financially - can really make a difference. Offering rides to after-school programs, helping to pay for summer camps or freeing up the young person's time so that they can fully participate in educational opportunities can be make big difference. This creates an implicit understanding in children that the adults in their lives are working to achieve certain objectives through daily/seasonal activities.

3. Redefining SUPPORT. The most important myth I think needs dispelling is this one: Tutoring is only for remedial learners. Students really need get into the habit of locating supplemental education resources. They need to know how to find and create a community of support and assistance in their educational pursuits. Study buddies and study groups for all subjects should be identified immediately. Don't wait until you think you're doing poorly to get extra help in a subject. After-school clubs, summer programs, and academic competitions are also good places for support - academically and intellectually. Plus, let's not forget the importance of mentors. This strategy is about deliberately aligning yourself and your children with people/programs/resources that connect them to other high achievers. I know that participating in such programs can be financially and socially interruptive, especially for kids from single-parent or economically strapped families. I know from first hand experience, but trust me that these opportunities yield big payoffs, particularly when it comes to post-secondary opportunities like access to scholarships, internships via networking, better grades and letters of recommendations.

In summary, access to science and technology careers will require a higher education. And success in higher education means understanding the culture of academia and high achievement. It's time to abandon the notions that some subjects are just not for some students or that they will ‘figure it out eventually’. It's also time to dispense the idea of luck or pre-destiny as the reasons why some make it and most don't. I'm tired of gambling away the future of bright and promising students. Success is a deliberate strategy not a lottery.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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