Engineering as a Vocation


October 6, 2015


We recently took a survey of our incoming NACME Scholar freshmen and asked them why they decided to choose engineering as a college major. The top two answers the students submitted were ‘Because I am good at math’ and ‘Because I like to solve problems.’

At the same time, parents often tell us they are encouraged by the employment prospects and starting salaries of engineers. A response we hear less frequently is ‘Engineers change the world,’ or ‘Engineers improve people’s lives.’ Choosing a career path to help others or to benefit the larger society has often been associated with phrases such as ‘life calling’ or ‘vocation.’ Perhaps, if our goal is to bring more underrepresented minorities into the engineering profession, emphasizing the vocational aspects of the field might be a great way to attract the next generation.

In a recent book entitled, “The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation,” author Tim Clydesdale argues that all colleges, not just religiously affiliated ones, should talk to their students about choosing a career path that aligns with a sense of life purpose.

A focus of Clydesdale’s book was a wide ranging experiment at 88 campuses, funded by the Lily Endowment 15 years ago. The purpose of the experiment was to see what happened when colleges and universities engaged students in a dialogue about how they might lead meaningful lives. Clydesdale points out that many years later, long after the funds from the Lily Endowment have run out, the programs are still going strong. The reason? Students and universities prize these programs and have reported both personal and professional gains from them.

We recently heard from a student who decided to study engineering at college after being introduced to the field at one of our Academies of Engineering in High School. He told us of the personal rewards that he has experienced from designing prosthetic limbs. We meet other engineers who have worked in the Peace Corps or with other international relief agencies. And, of course, engineers who work as part of large teams to solve many of society’s most pressing problems must also feel the personal rewards derived from their work.

University programs with a technical bent may shy away from these conversations. And we may fall into the old trap of saying discussions about ‘life purpose’ are better directed towards students in the social sciences or humanities. But engineers and those in STEM fields more broadly have a lot to feel good about. 


Salute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’S)


August 5, 2015

For its summer issue, US Black Engineer magazine recognized NACME as a Top Supporter of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s). We were chosen by a panel comprised of the deans of 15 university level engineering programs and the alliance, Advancing Minorities’ Interest in Engineering (AMIE). As someone who is intimately familiar with the growth, mission, and effectiveness of HBCU’s, I was honored to receive this recognition on behalf of NACME.

For me, the lessons learned and friends made at three HBCU’s have been a guiding star throughout my life. I began my academic career at Morgan State University, served as the Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs at Delaware State University, and later served as President of LeMoyne-Owen College.

Our recognition from US Black Engineer also coincides with a recent article I read about a new book by Melissa Wooten, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her book is titled In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt. I learned things I hadn’t known before. For example, in their early years, many HBCU’s also served as both elementary and high schools for their communities, as few African Americans had access to education at any level. And, facing a funding crisis in the late 1940’s, the presidents of several HBCU’s came together to form the United Negro College Fund, an organization that remains a seminal force in higher education.

Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, African American college graduates faced a limited job market based on the wider society’s perceptions of the kinds of career paths they ‘could’ or ‘could not’ excel in. After the Civil Rights Movement, new career opportunities opened up for African Americans. HBCU’s adapted by adding new course offerings and majors to prepare these young people for more and more career options.

Today, HBCU’s are stronger than ever. Although HBCU’s represent only three percent of all U.S. higher education institutions, 8.5 percent of African American undergraduates attended these institutions in 2012. And in terms of preparing young African American engineers, the HBCU network is, once again, taking a leadership role. On an average year, HBCU’s award 17 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in engineering to African Americans. So it should be no surprise that, of NACME’s 51 Partner Institutions, six are HBCU’s. We are happy to have Florida A&M University, Jackson State University, North Carolina A&T State University, Tuskegee University, Prairie View A&M University, and Morgan State University as part of our NACME family.

And the best is yet to come. There is much to look forward to as the HBCU network writes the next chapter in its illustrious history.

In order to implement the NACME STEM Integration Model Linkage Strategy (NSIM), a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was established to solidify the roles and responsibilities of the Academies of Engineering (AOEs), Partner Institutions and NACME. NACME’s role is to formally introduce the AOEs to our partner institutions. The primary benefit of the MOU for the AOEs is that it positions the AOE graduating seniors to become NACME Scholars after meeting the eligibility requirements for the $2,500 NACME Pre-Engineering Scholarship.

As for our corporate partners, NACME offers them a seat on the AOE Advisory Board and they, in turn, gain access to the AOE classrooms, offer shadowing experiences for students and teachers, and provide internship and full-time positions to NACME Scholars enrolled at a NACME Partner Institution.

The NACME Pre-Engineering Scholarship Program recognizes the nation’s highest achieving African American, American Indian, and Latino high school seniors who have demonstrated academic excellence, leadership skills, and a commitment to science and engineering as a career goal. Each NACME Pre-Engineering Scholarship winner receives a $2,500 award to be used toward the cost of attendance at a university.



Summer's Possibilities

July 1, 2015


Many of my best memories take me back to summer vacations at my grandparents' cotton and tobacco farm in rural South Carolina. I spent carefree weeks playing with my many cousins and even helped out by picking tobacco. As a teenager, I continued to enjoy my summer vacations, but worked jobs closer to home, including a stint at Harlem Hospital. It was a great feeling of independence to be able to work and earn a little spending money. And although I worked during my summer vacations, I still took advantage of the typical summer pleasures of being outside, sleeping late, having free time with family and friends, and not worrying about studying for the next test or planning the next paper.

On a related note, the less structured explorations that happen in summer can lead kids on a path to learning adventures. Increasingly, parents, recreation departments, and school districts are recognizing this. There are robotics camps where students can spend entire afternoons tinkering, chess clubs where kids can learn to be more critical thinkers, and computer programming classes where participants write code in a free form environment. A common thread that runs throughout these programs is that youngsters are not graded and engage in these pursuits just for the fun of it.

Several organizations have picked up on this. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) has built on this idea by leveraging many of the city's leading cultural institutions. Kids visit the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the New York Aquarium, the Queens Zoo, and the Staten Island Zoo for 'immersive experiences' in science. Under the starry skies of southern Arizona, the University of Arizona lets students explore the heavens in Astronomy Camp. And at the University of Washington, a NACME Partner Institution, learning 'blooms' in a summer gardening program that teaches young people about botany.

At NACME, summer has also been the time for our college-age NACME Scholars to intern at NACME Board Companies. Scholars see what life is like for an engineer outside the classroom and get real world experience. Shani Allison, a NACME Scholar and Program Management Analyst, at the Ford Motor Company, a NACME Board Company, has said; "... the two summer internship experiences I got through NACME put me ahead of my peers. By having previous work experience I was able to find success quickly and transition into the workforce smoothly, which allowed me to pay it forward sooner than later." Our other board companies also value our internship program as it is a tool for recruiting excellent candidates. For these reasons and more, we have committed to growing our Summer Internship Program as part of our new Connectivity 2020 Strategic Plan.

Summer is fleeting. Whether you plan on recreation, learning, or a combination of the two, here's to making the most of it!



New Approaches to Enlisting More Mentors and Teachers


June 4, 2015


Every May I send out a personal letter to each of NACME’s graduating seniors congratulating them on achieving their bachelor’s of engineering degree. Each new diploma is not only a personal accomplishment for the student, but also something that the larger NACME family can be proud of. This year, I am happy to report that I sent out 428 letters to graduating underrepresented minorities who benefited from NACME Scholarships.

Along with my congratulations, I ask these students to stay involved with NACME and to find ways to mentor the next generation. Role models are especially needed in underrepresented communities. With the excitement and demands of a first job, it can be hard to find time to give back. At a breakfast meeting with new NACME Scholars at the University of Arkansas this month, I was impressed that all of the students I spoke with already had jobs lined up with lucrative starting salaries, and one with our board company —ExxonMobil, or were continuing their studies. While I was excited for them, I could also see that they would need to turn their energies toward establishing themselves on the job before considering how they could volunteer in a mentoring role.

One idea for connecting young underrepresented minorities with successful professionals was beautifully exhibited recently at the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture (CTEA), one of NACME’s Partner High Schools, in Queens, N.Y. During the CTEA’s Career Day on May 8th, High School Juniors had the opportunity to meet with engineering professionals. Students in a robotics class, for example, met with three young African American engineers who work for Sikorsky, an aircraft corporation. When young people see successful professionals who look like them, it is much easier for them to consider following a similar career path.

Perhaps the best STEM mentors are middle and high school teachers. Building diversity in the American STEM pipeline will require that we rapidly address the shortage of STEM teachers in underrepresented communities. One innovative approach that many states have adopted to quickly get more qualified STEM professionals into classrooms in underrepresented communities is to give working professionals in the STEM field temporary teaching credentials while they gradually earn a full teaching license via an alternative route. The California Teacher Corps and the Massachusetts “MINT” programs offer variations on this approach. And organizations such as Teach for America and Math for America employ slightly different approaches to achieve the same important goal.

The common thread that weaves together programs such as Career Day at the CTEA and the California Teacher Corps is the recognition that connecting promising STEM students from underrepresented communities with worthy mentors and teachers calls for innovative new approaches. Or, as the old saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”



Perseverance in Science and Life


May 6, 2015

Olester Benson, my friend and NACME Board Liaison, recently sent me a link to a National Public Radio interview he taped on the subject of ‘Embracing Failure in Science.’ Dr. Benson, a Corporate Research Scientist at 3M, discussed with the other guests the value of embracing failure as an essential part of the scientific process. The guests talked about how, in the history of science, failed experiments were not negative occurrences, but valuable lessons that helped scientists narrow down their search for the breakthrough discoveries that lay ahead. What was the takeaway from the program? ‘Don’t be afraid to fail…and keep on going.’ The idea can be summed up in one word: ‘perseverance.’

This spring, I have been invited to give commencement addresses in two very different parts of the county. On May 9th, I will be the Commencement Speaker for the University of Arkansas’ College of Engineering in Fayetteville, Arkansas. On May 19th, I will be the Commencement Speaker at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark, New Jersey. During the commencement at NJIT, I will also be honored with a Doctor of Humane Letters.

As I address the Class of 2015, I will be thinking about their perseverance. Many of these graduates hail from backgrounds that have been traditionally underrepresented in the engineering profession. Others are the first in their families to go to college. And all have successfully completed challenging coursework in science and engineering.

My advice to the students will be to retain that determination throughout their careers. During a recent speech to graduates, President Obama echoed these sentiments as well. “True excellence only comes with perseverance,” he said. “That wasn’t something I really understood when I was your age.”

In this issue of NACME Now, we take time to recognize members of our larger family who have received honors and reached milestones. We also announce Elizabeth Ross as our new Chief Development Officer. As a strong fundraising effort is vital to everything we do, Elizabeth will be playing a key role here at NACME. I hope you will join me in welcoming her.




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