Bolstering African-American Success in the STEM Fields

This past week, I attended and presented at a symposium entitled “Beyond Stock Stories and Folktales: African Americans and the Pipeline to the Professoriate: An Evidence-based Examination of STEM Fields.” The symposium was co-hosted by William Tate of Washington University in St. Louis and Henry Frierson of the University of Florida. The event brought together some diverse and interesting people to talk about the challenges and successes of African Americans in the STEM fields. There were some scholars talking about STEM success at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), while others discussed efforts that have worked at Historically White Institutions (HWIs) such as the Meyerhoff Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

After listening to all of the presentations, I was left with one thought: we know how to increase the success of African Americans in the STEM fields. We can identify the undergraduate institutions that produce the most students who pursue graduate degrees in the sciences. Most of these institutions are HBCUs, but there are quite a few HWIs, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, that serve as models as well. We know what these institutions do to increase success, retention, and graduation of their students in the STEM fields. Here are just a few of the ways that institutions with STEM success for African Americans foster that success:

• They establish a community among STEM students – a community that has at its core, a belief in the ultimate success of all students – including African American students. They don’t make negative assumptions about African American students.

• They foster an ethos of cooperation rather than intense competition among students. Students learn that “your success is my success” and vice versa.

• They incorporate African American authors into course readings and use concrete examples in the classroom that speak to issues of importance in Black communities. According to research by Professor Terrell Strayhorn, those African Americans who hear more about themselves in research feel a stronger sense of belonging in the STEM fields and at their institutions.

• Faculty members assign study groups and set high expectations for these groups. Faculty-assigned study groups avoid classroom cliques and the alienation and isolation of African American students.

• They hire more faculty of color and White faculty who are committed to the success of African American student success. In essence, they hire people who believe in the success – not the failure – of African American students.

• They put programs in place to close the gap for students who didn’t get proper preparation at the K-12 level. And, they don’t look down on students who take advantage of these programs. Instead, they promote and require intensive advising and tutoring.

• They provide ample, hands-on research opportunities for African American students to work closely with faculty members on meaningful projects both during the academic year and the summer.

• They form partnerships with local high schools and middle schools to indentify students interested in STEM – catching students early and encouraging their interests.

I wonder when majority institutions will stop making excuses and start making changes to empower African American students in the STEM fields. Given the recent prediction that we will experience shortages of doctors and scientists, now seems like a perfect time to get started.

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