When it comes to propelling the careers of young African Americans into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the numbers are sorely lacking. They are even more dismal among black males, who – along with their Latino counterparts – now bear the distinction of being equally disenfranchised from entering and succeeding in STEM.
But Ray Jones, an associate professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, who was among 200 individuals who attended a recent symposium on the matter, said there are several reasons for the absence of minority males in STEM programs.
"Coming through the early grades, our male students are not prepared with an academic foundation or disposition to compete in STEM fields," Jones said. "Many are still not ready by the time they reach high school to enter STEM programs ... as for most of our black males, it's not been sexy to get into science and math."
Jones alluded to the "tremendous" need for role models in the black community, saying for instance, that there are not enough Ph.D.s in South Carolina to encourage kids. "As a result, many of them are unaware of the possibilities in STEM – it's just something that they don't routinely know about," Jones said.
According to findings from the landmark study, "The Quest for Excellence: Supporting the Academic Success of Minority Males in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Disciplines," it is incumbent upon high-achieving minority males already working in STEM initiatives to mentor youth in order to spawn and nurture their interest in those disciplines.
The 73-page study – which was distributed during the February 28 symposium at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headquarters in Southwest – states that encouraging black youth toward STEM programs can be further buttressed through involvement in undergraduate research and financial support.
Overall, the purpose of the symposium, that was sponsored by the Minority Males in STEM Initiative (MMSI) of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), was to collaborate with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and NASA to find ways to better support the academic success of minority males who choose to major in STEM disciplines at the graduate level.
A larger reason for the lack of minority students in STEM has hinged on fear of racial antagonism. That alone, has kept many away from those disciplines, according to a recently published book by Maya A. Beasley.
The author notes in "Opting Out," that oftentimes black students at elite universities already grapple with social and institutional obstacles of their own which "ultimately drive them away from the high-status, high-paying jobs that they're qualified for in fields such as engineering, science, finance and information technology."
Beasley, who also believes schools are partly to blame, maintains that in order to attract and retain more black students in STEM, schools like the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, have created special scholarship programs to get more minority students into these fields.
Beasley also points out that while black students who graduate from the more prestigious colleges and universities tend to gravitate to jobs outside of STEM disciplines, fear of being possibly targeted in affirmative action lawsuits could hinder those colleges from doing more to promote STEM initiatives aimed at minority students.
"Unfortunately, racial representation is a cycle: the more African Americans there are in an occupation or academic field, the more there will be in the future," Beasley wrote.
Meanwhile, findings in the APLU report – gleaned from methods that included reviews of background literature and related policy and examining successful programs – were based on a survey of nearly 1,500 STEM students. More than 100 STEM faculty and about 70 university administrators at 14 higher education institutions also participated in the survey which was conducted during the fall 2011 semester. Among the cross section of colleges and universities that participated – offering their practices in recruiting, retaining and graduating minority males were the traditionally black Delaware State University, Florida A&M University and the Southern University system.
"This report – which in my personal opinion, is the first of its kind – reveals what four-year universities are doing to specifically serve minority males in STEM disciplines," said Lorenzo Esters, APLU vice president and MMSI project director.
Esters, 36, said the report "reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly about the state of minority males in STEM in the U.S." He said the documentation also highlights opportunities to change systems and processes to more effectively support a unique segment of the U.S. population – all of which are seen through the lived experiences of minority males themselves, and sheds light on what it takes to support them.
"Particularly, the students we surveyed who were successful minority males," Esters said, "they had an average GPA of 3.0 or 3.49, and what we found is that many of these students were from low-income backgrounds."
Esters continued: "There were certainly implications for us . . . We need to find ways to support these students financially that include Pell Grants and institutional scholarships. We need more welcoming relations between faculty and students – inside and outside the classroom – and to ensure that students from low-income backgrounds are exposed to what it means to go to college."
APLU staff associate, Jamel Hodges, 37, added that the study found that males at HBCUs felt their mentors were very supportive in their quest for STEM-related education. He said that although a lot of work remains to be done "at all levels of the education pipeline," opportunities for improving outcomes are limitless.
"The influx of people in these fields helps them as well as their mentors," said Hodges who recently completed work on his doctorate degree. "I want to put to use my dissertation and passion to help minority students succeed, into practice."