Over the next few days, 95 academically gifted African-American children with an aptitude in math and science will attend a highly-competitive summer camp in California’s Silicon Valley.
The Greene Scholars Program, established in 2001, works with 3rd to 12th graders to cultivate academic abilities in science, technology, engineering and math.
“What’s unique about the program is that we’ve a long-term initiative to help stimulate the intellectual capacity of our kids to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field careers,” says program director Gloria Whitaker-Daniels.
“I feel in love with the model,” says Whitaker-Daniels, who initially was a parent-volunteer whose brood all completed the program.
“We stay with kids when they enter the program till they enter college. I have not found another program that does this over this duration.”
Every Greene Scholar goes to college
Since its inception, every GSP scholar has gone on to college. “The majority takes up STEM related bachelor’s degrees but of those that don’t we are confident they can face the world with a good grasp of math and science,” she says.
For Whitaker-Daniels, her commitment is a personal passion and testimony to the success of the project.
Her two eldest are both pursuing a Master of Science at reputable colleges in STEM disciplines. And her youngest, 19-year-old Kolin, is doing a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering at San Jose State University.
The Greene Scholars Program is just one of several projects trying to increase the numbers of African-Americans in STEM.
A desperate need for African-Americans in STEM fields
“There’s been incremental improvements but the numbers are well below where they should be and in some areas have even stagnated or declined,” says Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia.
Indeed, according to Project Step-Up, there has only been a 2 percent to 3 percent increase of African-Americans in STEM professions over the past 30 years.
However, the fastest growing occupations all call for STEM degrees and leading job surveys reflect this fact. According to US News‘s “100 Best Jobs of 2013” the top ranking 15 jobs are all in tech and health care careers.
Undeniably, other data highlights this trend. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that jobs in computer systems design and related services are projected to grow 45 percent between 2008 and 2018 as a result of the escalating need to maintain networks.
In fact, as the U.S. plods along the road to recovery a pressing debate is how America can remain globally competitive by preparing graduates to fill highly-skilled STEM jobs. In a bid to equip more students, the Obama administration is investing millions in STEM education.
Ill-prepared for the next generation of careers
Shepherd says the future recruitment, retention and graduation of minorities in STEM fields is even more of a concern. Black Americans are lagging behind and ill-prepared for this next generation of 21st century careers, he says.
“Many of the careers African-Americans consider to be good jobs [are] like lawyers and accountants,” he says. Though perfectly decent careers in the US News 2013 list, neither professions rank in the top 30, coming in at number 35 and 36, respectively.
Tokiwa T. Smith, founder and executive director of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link Inc., which promotes student achievement in STEM from K to 12 grades, reiterates this point. “STEM is one of the few sectors that are still creating jobs but a lot of our kids don’t see this career as relevant.”
Shepherd says there are a number of variables that contribute to the problem. Culturally, many black Americans do not consider the lucrative and burgeoning field of STEM. Although there are success stories (Lisa Jackson and Neil deGrasse Tyson to name just a few), there are still not enough positive role models.
Smith says there is also the “nerd factor.” Children simply do not see it as cool to excel in STEM. When they draw images of what STEM means to them it is often of “old, Caucasian males.”
Dr. Pat Marsteller, director of the Emory College Center for Science Education, says part of the problem is institutional. “There are problems at all levels from the recruitment of students into colleges to their success rates.”
Getting kids as early as possible
STEM faculties are typically the least diverse, with some not even having any minorities at all, says Marsteller. “Students that don’t feel welcome have a difficulty in completing their studies.”
She also concedes it is an uphill struggle and acknowledges “difficulty in promotion and advancement at all levels, even for those that complete the highest level of training.”
Despite the setbacks, Smith, whose organization does outreach in urban communities in Atlanta and in the San Francisco Bay area, says the key is mentoring and exposure to STEM careers and professionals.
“You need to get to kids as early as possible. You can even influence at kindergarten. It’s not about when the kids are ready but usually about what the adults are comfortable with.”
“It’s about stepping out our comfort zone and exposing our kids to science” to increase the number of African-Americans, women, and other minorities entering and succeeding STEM professions.
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti