Mentoring, Financial Aid Key to More Minority Males in STEM

Dorothy Rowley | 3/8/2012, 2:22 p.m.

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.