Math and science education key to more black astronauts

theGRIO REPORT - It was not until 1979 that an African-American, Guion "Guy" Bluford, Jr., donned cosmonaut overalls. Three-years later, he became the first African-American man in space...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Forty-three years ago today on October 11, the Apollo 7 spacecraft left earth. Prior to this flight and subsequent trips thereafter, there was no such thing as an African-American astronaut. It was not until 1979 that an African-American, Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., donned astronaut overalls. Three-years later, he became the first black man in space.

Fast-forward to 2011, there have only been 19 black astronauts out of 330 in NASA’s 53 year-long history. The agency is currently gearing up to recruit for its elite astronaut corp. But with students of color lagging significantly behind in scientific disciplines due to the burgeoning completion gap at undergraduate and post-secondary levels, will there be enough people of color to take on the role of space explorer?

While students of color lag in scientific disciplines, the slow down is not exclusively confined to this group. In general, American students are underperforming in math and science disciplines when compared on a worldwide scale. To encourage students, especially children of color, to excel in math and science, a number of new initiatives have been launched, including President Barack Obama’s 2009 “Educate to Innovate” campaign.

“I believe that President Obama recognizes what America needs to do to enhance its education efforts,” said Dr. Bernard Harris, Jr. referring to the president’s $260 million infusion of public and private funds toward catapulting American students to the top in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education.

Dr. Harris, Jr. has gotten in on the action too. The former astronaut and the first African-American to walk in space started an educational outreach project via his Harris Foundation and in partnership with the ExxonMobil Foundation called the dream tour. The goal is to encourage middle school students to pursue STEM disciplines at the college level.

“So far, we’ve been to 36 cities, about 182 schools and engaged about 50,000 students,” said Dr. Harris, Jr. since the program began in 2008.

Earlier in the month, 4,500 middle school students from across New York City participated in the tour-. Up next on the schedule will be stops in Washington D.C and Texas. Dr. Harris, Jr. has also taken the dream tour internationally. In September, he made stops in Angola, Nigeria and South Africa.

In addition to the dream tour, Dr. Harris, Jr. also hosts a summer science camp for college students of all races. Since 2007, more than 6,400 students have participated from colleges across the country, including students from the University of Southern California and Howard University.

Do initiatives like these signal there is hope for students of color in math and science?
According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, the number of black students participating in science and engineering graduate degrees has more than doubled in the past two decades. Enrollment at US universities has increased from about 38,000 in 1989 up to 93,000 as of 2009 for black students seeking a science or engineering degree.

Unlike the increase in graduate enrollment, black students receiving bachelor degrees have remained relatively low at an average 8.1 percent from 1997 to 2006. Whites accounted for an average of 67 percent of the number of bachelor degrees conferred within that same time frame.

An initiative called the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County is hoping to change this. The goal of the undergraduate program is to increase diversity within STEM fields.

“We’re in a 10 foot hole with a five foot ladder,” said director of the Meyerhoff program LaMont Toliver referring to the performance lag among both black and all students within the US.

In its first year, the Meyerhoff program was only open to black males but later expanded to include black females. In its eighth year, the program expanded to include all students but the emphasis is still on helping students of color to excel in STEM fields. Now in its 23rd year, the Meyerhoff program is considered an educational model for what students can achieve when the right amount of resources are invested in STEM education.

With initiatives such as the Meyerhoff Scholars Program and the Harris Foundation’s dream tour and science camp, maybe more black astronauts will be in the future for NASA. Since the days of the department’s Apollo missions, NASA has ramped up its diversity initiatives to encourage more astronauts of color.

“Journeying beyond earth’s orbit, as NASA is committed to do, will require a diverse team of many individuals with the best minds,” said Charles Bolden, Jr., administrator of NASA. “I believe it is incumbent on every member of the NASA community to advocate for, promote, and most importantly practice the principles of diversity and inclusion in everything that we do.”

NASA’s astronaut core does a lot of appearances, as well as the department actively recruits from diverse universities and from among special interest groups such as Spelman College and the National Society of Black Engineers.

“Each time we have a selection, we work with our diversity and equal opportunity director to put together a publicity and communication plan to make sure that we’re reaching a broad group of people,” said Duane Ross, NASA’s manager for astronaut candidate selection and training.”

“When I was 13-years-old and looking at the program, I certainly didn’t see anyone that looked like me,” said Dr. Harris, Jr. “If you look at NASA now, we have every ethnic group present.”

But according to Dr. Harris, Jr., the only way there will be an increase in black astronauts is if there is a concerted effort by the federal, state and local governments, as well as parents in discussing and enhancing our educational system, especially when it comes to math and science.

“We want to make sure that the African-American community can participate in the American dream,” said Dr. Harris, Jr. “And I believe that the way to do this is through education.”