Opinion

Op-Ed: Blacks falling behind in science education

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Forty years ago this month, with the successful completion of NASA's Apollo 17 mission, humans took their last steps on the moon. Since then, the power of science and technology that took us there continues to cross new frontiers.

In our time, there is an increasing awareness of the importance of STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- as the driver of human progress. Accordingly, society increasingly is prepared to pay more for these skills.

Today, careers as civil engineers, computer programmers and data analysts rank at or near the top of the best jobs in the lists compiled by Money Magazine, Forbes and CNN.

Sadly, however, our nation is not fulfilling its potential in these emerging high-growth fields.

As an educator for 13 years, I am struck by the fact that African-Americans earned only 1.6 percent of all physical science doctorates awarded in our nation's universities, according to research by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. The figure for advanced engineering degrees was a similarly disappointing 1.8 percent. Obviously, this is a far cry from African-Americans' 13 percent share of the total population.

Still more alarmingly, in this snapshot study of 2009, not a single African-American student earned a doctorate in such fields as astronomy, astrophysics, theoretical chemistry, nuclear physics and nuclear engineering.

To be sure, there are exceptions to the rule in these fields, such as the prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently chosen to host the new "Cosmos," a sequel to Carl Sagan's 1980 documentary series. But we notice individuals like Dr. Tyson in part because they are such rare examples of African-Americans in these fields.

A significant part of the problem is that African-American children are often enrolled in failing urban public schools incapable of getting even through high school, let alone into college. As a STEM coordinator and the SMART lab facilitator at an urban high school in Washington D.C., I want to ensure this potential is not wasted. I see firsthand how our students are mastering these subjects, taking them through college and embarking on careers in STEM fields.

Friendship Public Charter School's Collegiate Academy, where I teach, invested in a SMART lab (science, math, art, reading and technology). This investment of more than $300,000 has now been replicated at eight of its 11 campuses.

Our students do far more than just succeed in the lab. They also complete academically rigorous Advanced Placement courses such as Advanced Placement computer science and Advanced Placement calculus, paving the way for acceptance in college STEM programs. Indeed, I have seen our students graduate Collegiate Academy, complete college and then embark on STEM jobs in this country and abroad. One student is studying computer science at Columbia University; another is now back in D.C. after working as an engineer in Dubai with his degree from Temple University.

One way that we get students interested initially is through our campus robotics team. We recently won first place in the National Society of Black Engineers Regional II Competition in Norfolk. As a result of the team's victory in engineering design for high school students, we are headed for the National Finals in Indianapolis in the spring. Some of the students are also interns with HTC, the Virginia-based engineering company.

Many of our students would never have accessed such opportunities if they had attended the public schools within walking distance of our Minnesota Avenue campus in Northeast D.C.

Friendship's Collegiate Academy has a 91 percent high school graduation rate, 35 percentage points higher than the average for D.C.'s city-run school system. In fact, our school produces about 35 percent of all high school graduates in D.C.'s high-poverty Wards 7 and 8, even though there are nine public high schools in those wards. The number of students we graduate is higher than every D.C. public high school, except Woodrow Wilson High School in affluent Ward 3. And 100 percent of our graduating class is accepted to college.

Forty years ago, the world cheered the Apollo 17 lunar landing. If we invest in all of our children now, who knows what they might achieve in the next 40 years?

Cherice R. Greene is a SMART lab facilitator/STEM coordinator at Friendship Public Charter School-Friendship Collegiate Academy.

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