African-American men are one of the only minority groups not making progress in STEM.
It’s not often that you hear calls for more men to participate in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Advocates consistently beat the drum to find ways to engage more female and minority students in STEM fields, which are still largely dominated by men. But within that group is perhaps one of the most underrepresented demographics: African-American men.
Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, the number of black men who earn science and engineering doctorates grew by more than 25 percent in 10 years, according to data from the National Science Foundation. While that appears to be a large growth, the absolute numbers barely budged between 2003 and 2013 – inching up from just 631 of 13,921 recipients to 798 of 16,542 recipients – and the representation has stayed essentially flat, between 4.5 percent and 4.8 percent of all science and engineering doctorates. The number of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to black men increased 45 percent, from 12,484 in 2002 to 18,102 in 2012. But similarly, black men as a proportion of all science and engineering bachelor’s degree recipients has remained essentially unchanged, at 6.1 percent in 2002 and 6.2 percent in 2012.
Like women and other minority groups, African-American men are also underrepresented in the workforce. Census data show that in 2010, African-American men made up 6.2 percent of the population between 18 and 64 years old. But in the same year, the NSF reported that black men represented just 3 percent of scientists and engineers working in those fields.
“This particular issue is one of the nation’s grand challenges,” said Gary May, dean of Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Engineering, during a roundtable discussion with reporters this week. “We have many examples of various programmatic interventions to ensure success. We have 1,000 points of light, but we don’t have a constellation. All we really need is something that connects … these thousand points of light to lead us to the proper solution.”
A group of African-American male STEM professionals – college and graduate students, professors, higher education administrators and industry leaders – gathered in the District of Columbia this week to speak with Congressional staffers and representatives about the unique challenges young black men face.
Many of the roadblocks that prevent young, African-American men from pursuing careers in STEM fields sound familiar: a lack of resources, role models and “relatability.” The solutions, too, mirror those used to entice more women to work toward STEM careers: Start teaching and engaging students sooner, and work to dispel the curse of self-doubt.
But the problems are complicated and magnified for black male students because of systemic problems of perception and low expectations.
“The lack of African-American men in stem is a byproduct of a failing system for African Americans in the overall school system,” said Karl Reid, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, during a roundtable discussion with reporters. “If you’re trying to survive in the educational process and you don’t have access to the [rigorous] courses … it really doesn’t bode well that you’ll be on the pathway to a STEM degree.”
John Silvanus Wilson – president of Morehouse College, a historically black higher education institution in Atlanta – said the outcomes are predictable, based on student achievement data. African-American males, he said, have smaller vocabularies upon entering kindergarten, are more likely to be behind in reading and numeracy by fourth grade and are at a higher risk of being suspended. And of the roughly 160,000 African-American male students who graduate high school each year, fewer than half even apply to a four-year school, he said.
“The potential pool of STEM African-American males has shrunk already, so it’s earlier in the pipeline when we’re going to have to find the solutions to this,” Wilson said. “They get off to a bad start. You’ve got brokenness at the start – broken families, broken values, broken potential. And they go to broken schools, most of them. It’s no surprise you get a broken hope, broken ambition and broken outcomes.”
Darryll Pines, dean of the school of engineering at the University of Maryland–College Park, said the problem runs deeper than the underrepresentation of black men in STEM. The United States, he said, goes through cycles that lead to feelings of frustration bubbling over, as they have in Baltimore in the last several weeks.
“We can use the STEM angle as a way to address it and to move our agenda along, that is to get more black males involved in STEM,” Pines said. “But we seem as a country to not really solve the problem originally.”
The deeper problems, he said, are a sense of hopelessness among certain communities, and a feeling of not being treated equitably in the educational system and the legal system.
“They’re crying out for help, and it’s not just West Baltimore – it’s all the communities that are out there that have this problem,” Pines said. “This is an opportunity to leverage the interest in STEM … because it is going to lead to great opportunities for our country, for economic development, and black males cannot be left behind this time.”