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How can we get more black women in STEM fields?

We’ve talked about preparing our children for numbers-focused fields for years, but numbers of degree-holding blacks aren’t growing.

Black parents have pointed their kids in the direction of science, engineering and math careers for decades, frequently with the expectation of their children doing better – financially, professionally and, to some extent, socially – than them. The conversation spikes every decade or so, like when astronauts like Guion Bluford and Mae Jemison were making headlines with NASA.

The term STEM – an acronym for careers in science, technology, engineering and math – is a newer word for an old conversation that popped up in the early 2000s. Jobs in science, engineering and math have long been seen as favorable career paths, becoming increasingly important as technology and the jobs around them continue to evolve.

But even though STEM fields have been grown rapidly and education resources revolving around STEM have become commonplace in schools, the role that African-Americans play in these fields have remained stagnant over the last 16 years or so. In 2015, black people held just 5.5 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education – this number decreasing from 6.5 percent in 2001. It’s the same story in computer science, where the number of degrees also remained almost unchanged, totaling 11.3 percent in 2015.

Not only are underrepresented students like women and African-Americans entering these programs at a lower rate, the National Center for Education Statistics says that they’re also more likely to switch out of STEM majors within their first year. A study by the American Psychological Association found that black women are more likely than white women to express interest in STEM majors but are less likely to earn degrees in STEM fields.

The release of the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures in December has brought the STEM conversation back to the forefront in the black community. The film, which tells the story of three black women who were key players in NASA’s role in the space race, has, at press time, grossed more than $144 million dollars while addressing the importance of STEM careers, the STEM contribution black people have made in history and the role we will play in the future.

Getting started early

Detroit engineer Kayla Shelton’s story somewhat mirrors that of the characters in Hidden Figures.

Shelton’s mother and teacher spotted Shelton’s academic talents at an early age and put in tremendous effort to challenge her and grow her interest in engineering.

“There wasn’t going to be enough exposure with just the regular academic structure,” Shelton says. Despite having access to Advanced Placement courses in her Detroit high school, Shelton attributes a lot of her preparation to the outside camps and workshops that allowed her to further her science education while in school.

“Seeing the application of what I learned in my science classes was important. If I couldn’t see it in myself, how would I know that that was something I could aspire to?”

Michelle Reaves is the executive director of the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program, a nonprofit that connects Detroit’s students to various STEM opportunities and education in throughout Michigan. Reaves says the majority of black students are not deemed “college ready” – a state measure that determines whether a student is prepared for the academic rigors of post-secondary education – by the time they graduate, one of the first hurdles a student faces when pursuing a future in STEM.

“When they start college, if they have an interest in STEM, they’re starting behind the eight ball, really because some are taking remedial courses to even get to where a first-year engineering student would be,” Reaves says.

When DAPCEP was founded 40 years ago, it was initially a program for high school students. As time went by, the organization gradually developed programs for students as young as 4.

“We introduce them to certain concepts so, as they continue to grow, none of this will be foreign,” Reaves says. “You can’t start talking about a STEM career in your junior year. You have to start finding out what your passions are much earlier than that.”

She adds that many school districts have begun attempts to make improvements to their curriculum to better prepare students for the jobs of the future. More pressing issues like graduation rates and standardized test performance, however, take precedence when it comes to allotting resources.

Pre-college programs have become a necessary component to diversifying STEM fields – not only to get kids caught up academically, but to also expose students to the opportunities that exist.

“Nobody really in the high schools is telling students, the girls in particular, that you can go and be a Ph.D. in biology research. They’re not exposing them to that,” says Kathleen Walker, the student success coordinator for the University of Detroit Mercy’s ReBUILDetroit program.

Many important roles in science and math aren’t always the most visual, so students don’t often, if ever, get the opportunity to see people working as scientists or mathematicians, let alone one that looks like them. Shelton says it wasn’t until she started as an intern at DTE Energy after her freshman year at Harvard University that she really got the chance to sit down with another black woman engineer.

Confronting other factors

Tackling the educational issues that students face may get more black students in the door, but there’s a different set of non-academic hurdles that hurt the retention on underrepresented students.

ReBUILDetroit is a consortium that also includes Marygrove College and Wayne State University with the end goal of establishing Detroit as the center for biomedical research training for underrepresented students. The program is fueled by a $21.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Walker’s role is to ensure these students are successfully completing their studies, which begins with a summer bridge program to prepare them for their freshman year. Walker quickly learned that there are several other factors besides academics that impact underrepresented students.

“Probably 90 percent of my work is helping students work through those non-academic issues that seem so big to them – and some of them are,” Walker says. “They’re in single-parent homes, they’re first-generation college students, maybe they’ve been raised by a grandparent. For some, their greatest need is to try to get something to eat versus being able to afford their $600 books.”

Women and minority students are said to be more likely to switch out of STEM majors, according to the National Center for Education Research, which is often linked to factors outside of the classroom.

“If we don’t address those issues, that’s another reason why they fall out or they change their minds, because it just gets too overwhelming,” Walker says. “As soon as they think they can’t do it, they go through this ‘I don’t belong here, I’m not connected, this is too much for me’ mindset.”

The importance that the workforce that fills STEM jobs be as diverse as the reflecting community is important, and institutions are responding to the STEM fields’ stagnant diversity by engaging underrepresented students younger and younger. In addition to nonprofits like DAPCEP, the Michigan Science Center recently launched its STEMinista Project, which engages girls in grades 4-8 in special STEM opportunities.

“I think that Detroit and the state of Michigan are literally capable of changing the statistic about the number of girls in STEM because, let’s face it, this is a city that builds stuff. This is what we do, so it’s part of our culture,” says Michigan Science Center president and CEO Tonya Matthews. “I think that initiatives like this in Detroit are powerful enough to really change the game.”

ALANA WALKER IS ASSOCIATE EDITOR AT BLAC.

STEM Education Programs

The STEMinista Project 

This program at the Michigan Science Center is designed for girls in grades 4-8. They host meet and greets with women STEM professionals and special programs and workshops on the second Saturday or each month.

DEVELOP(her)

Grand Circus Detroit holds regular workshops and full-time and part-time web development boot camps year-round. Their DEVELOP(her) scholarship for women 18 and older, covers the full cost of tuition for a limited number of seats in their boot camp.

Wayne State University Math Corps 

With three different programs (a summer camp, high school bridge program and a Saturday program), Math Corps is a tuition-free academic enrichment and mentoring program connecting middle and high school students with college students and mathematicians. 

Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program

Though the program began strictly for engineering, over the last 40 years, it has expanded to other STEM subjects and services over 4,000 students, ages 3-18, each year.

ReBUILDetroit

A collaboration between Marygrove College, University of Detroit Mercy and Wayne State University, the ReBUILDetroit program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, helps underrepresented students succeed in a path to a biomedical research career. 

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