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Creating a new generation of Black technocrats.

FROM MEDICAL LABS TO FACTORY FLOORS TO cyberspace, success in America has never been more dependent on the ability co master technology. Yet, 10 years since BE spotlighted burgeoning opportunities in "Venturing into the Brave New World of Science and Engineering," the number of black scientists and engineers remains, as one Ph.D. in engineering puts it, "vanishingly small."

African Americans make up 10% of the labor force, but less than 3% of scientists and engineers. Why are the numbers so low? There are several reasons, and they all circle back to the same basic problem: Preparation for most careers in the sciences is best begun early, and most black children are not encouraged in these areas soon enough. Prior to high school, many black children are not exposed to the sciences at all. That lack of exposure can be difficult--even impossible--to make up for later.

As for the expense associated with pursuing the levels of education many science-oriented careers require, right now there is more funding for such pursuits than there are black applicants.


Despite setbacks to affirmative action, industry demand for black scientists and engineers is stronger than ever. Several programs, such as the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (GEM), are working to enhance black students' preparedness. GEM, which matches minority graduate students with industrial companies providing full scholarships and stipends, has grown from just six students at three universities in 1976 to 300 at 75 universities today. GEM alumni total more than 1,400 and the program, originally established for students seeking master's degrees, has been expanded to include Ph.D.s in science and engineering. "Demand from the companies [for students to sponsor] is very high," says Betty Jean Valdez, a GEM senior counselor and recruiter.

Another bright spot is the strong record of historically black colleges and universities. In recent years, HBCUs have graduated about 15% of all African American undergraduate science and engineering majors. Even more significantly, HBCUs produce about 29% of students who go on to complete Ph.D.s in science and engineering.

At Xavier University in New Orleans, 276 out of 358 graduating seniors received bachelor of science degrees last year. Fifty-five went on to medical school, making the small New Orleans school No. 1 in the nation for placing black students in medical school, outpacing Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins. (Nos. 2 through 4 are also historically black schools: Howard, Spelman and Morehouse.)

The success of the HBCUs has not been lost on majority institutions, many of which are instituting new programs to attract and retain black students. In contrast to an earlier generation of programs that focused primarily on financial aid, many of the latest initiatives echo the supportive atmosphere, strong mentoring relationships and high expectations that have made HBCUs so successful.

One such program is the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Founded in 1988, the program seeks to increase the numbers of African Americans--particularly males--studying science and engineering. The carefully selected participants receive full scholarships, summer internships and special academic support. In return, they're expected to study hard, do well and continue on to graduate studies. "We take a comprehensive approach that involves working with the whole person," explains the university's president, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, a mathematician who initiated the program.

For Hrabowski, a key goal is to get more African Americans into the pipeline leading to graduate degrees and high-profile academic and research jobs. HBCUs notwithstanding, just 204 African Americans earned doctoral degrees in life sciences, physical sciences or engineering in 1993--a scant 1.9% of the total.

With 47 Meyerhoff scholars now holding UMBC undergraduate degrees and 180 in the pipeline, the program has demonstrated success. As a group, the scholars have a grade point average of about 3.4 compared with 2.7 for a comparable group of black science and engineering majors who attended the university before Meyerhoff. Most of the program's alumni have entered medical or graduate school, and the attrition rate is extremely low.

Hrabowski encourages his young scholars to see themselves as members of a talented, privileged group from whom great accomplishments are expected. "We put a great deal of emphasis on celebrating high achievement," says Hrabowski. "In most settings in this country it is not cool to be a high-achieving African American, especially for young males."


Despite its successes, programs like Meyerhoff are only a partial answer. The greater challenge is to increase the number of students who would qualify to take advantage of such opportunities. "The real push has to be to increase the size of the pool," says Norman L. Fortenberry, program director in the undergraduate education division at the National Science Foundation. That means captivating the minds of young children by exciting their interest in the sciences.

Many colleges and universities are addressing the pipeline problem by sponsoring summer and weekend outreach programs for high school and middle school children. Many of the science majors who enroll at Xavier, for example, come out of the college's summer math and science programs for high school students. "Everyone has to understand that this is a long-term endeavor," says Tommy Smith, a mechanical engineer who runs the diversity program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. "To make an impact in science and technology you're really talking about graduate education. And the path to graduate education is probably decided by the time you enter junior high school."

Some are trying to reach students even earlier. Dr. Army Lester, an associate professor of biology at Kennesaw State College in Marietta, Ga., runs a summer science camp for middle school children. But he's also pushing for the college to get involved at the grade school level. "There seems to be something magical about the elementary school years." he says. "There, you find a lot of students who say, `I would love to be a scientist.' But by the time they get to high school, it seems to be the farthest thing from their minds."

It's a big job and one that educators insist they cannot do alone. Successful black scientists and engineers almost invariably credit supportive families and a strong emphasis on the value of education. "I recognized very early that science was one of my strengths," Lester says. "And my family structure led me to see college as the vehicle for success. The message I got at home was `You are going to college.

That message is one that more black children desperately need--sooner rather than later.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Black Enterprise 25th Anniversary: Saluting the Past, Shaping the Future; includes a list of 5 educational centers with science/math programs for minority students
Author:Carey, Patricia M.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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