Author comments on new book exploring the story of African Americans in engineering


January 29, 2016


Since its founding in 1974, NACME has been a leader in research on the issues impacting minority participation in engineering in the U.S. Through books, chapters, articles, monographs, technical reports, briefs, and national symposia, NACME has built the knowledge base and expertise to lead a long-term national effort to enhance the participation of successful African American, American Indian, and Latino young women and men in engineering education and careers.  

ChangingTheFaceOfEngineeringA new book, Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience, explores the story of African Americans in engineering and argues that their continued underrepresentation in the field imperils the nation’s ability to compete globally. The book is co-edited by Dr. John Brooks Slaughter, the 5th and former President and CEO of NACME, a former director of the National Science Foundation, and a current professor of education and engineering at the University of Southern California; Yu Tao, an assistant professor of sociology and the director of Gender and Cultural Studies at Stevens Institute of Technology; and Willie Pearson, Jr., a professor of sociology at Georgia Institute of Technology. In 15 chapters, scholars from a range of disciplines and employment sectors examine issues related to the status of African Americans in engineering. The book was published last fall by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

I am honored to have been invited by Dr. Slaughter to author a chapter entitled Enhancing the Community College Pathway to Engineering Careers for African American Students: A Critical Review of Promising and Best Practices. Visitors to my Blog will know that I am a champion for an expanded role for the community college in diversifying the U.S. engineering workforce. My chapter argues that now is a propitious moment to connect four strands that relate directly to the contemporary concerns about U.S. competitiveness in the flat world: 1) the fact that diversity drives innovation and that its absence imperils our designs, our products, and, most of all, our creativity—all components of competitiveness; 2) African Americans remain one of the most underrepresented  minority groups in engineering –related fields; 3) African American students are well represented in the community college sector, although not in the STEM disciplines; and 4) community colleges are already essential to the education of engineers in the United States. Positioning the community college as an even more prominent and effective gateway to engineering careers for African American students will require bold action and academic strategy in a number of key areas. I offer concrete and actionable recommendations in the critical areas of pre-engineering and recruitment, student support services and retention, innovations in teaching and learning, the special case of developmental mathematics, and transfer and articulation. The visionary NACME Community College Strategy is discussed, and issues for further research, practice, and policy are enumerated.

Included below is Josh Logue’s interview with Dr. Slaughter, discussing the new book that appeared in the January 25, 2016 edition of Inside Higher Ed. The interview is reprinted with the permission of Inside Higher Ed.

 Q: Can you describe the origins of the late-1960s efforts to bring more African-Americans into the engineering field and where those efforts stand today?

A: What came to be known as the Minority Engineering Effort began with a symposium held at the National Academy of Engineering in 1973. It was the result of actions led by Percy Pierre, dean of engineering at Howard University, with support from industry, notably GE. After the symposium, Dr. Pierre was successful in convincing the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to make a major, several-year financial commitment, and with leadership from major corporate CEOs and university presidents the effort was launched. At the time, the number of African-American baccalaureate engineering graduates was in the neighborhood of 1 percent of the total and most of them were graduates of historically black colleges and universities. More recent data show that the percentage of African-American bachelor’s degree engineering graduates peaked at 5.6 percent in 2000 and has dropped to slightly below 4 percent in 2013. Improving retention to graduation has to be a key priority to improve these statistics.

Q: A chapter near the end of the book notes that "the lack of diversity among the U.S. engineering workforce poses a significant threat to our nation's ability to maintain an innovative edge in an increasingly competitive world." Can you talk briefly about why?

A: In the foreword to the book, Shirley Ann Jackson [president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], wrote about the “quiet crisis,” an expression she coined to refer to the fact that the need for engineers is at an all-time high while our production of engineering graduates has declined. Other nations, even developing ones, are producing more engineers than we are and are creating scientific and technological infrastructures that allow them to compete effectively with U.S. in the global competition for science and technology leadership. In order to increase the number of engineering graduates, we must ensure that more women and underrepresented minorities are encouraged to prepare themselves with the math and science skills needed for admission to an engineering education. The demographic changes in our nation’s population clearly indicate that we are becoming more diverse, and that diversity must be reflected in all professions, including science and engineering. Diversity drives innovation; creativity is unleashed in an environment rich with ideas and experiences of a diverse group of individuals.

Q: Right at the very beginning of the book, you note that "too often [African-American] inventions and scientific discoveries were neither recognized nor valued." Can you highlight one or two examples of this that stand out to you?

A: Throughout history, African-Americans have provided noteworthy inventions and products that have made our lives safer, healthier and more comfortable. They include, among many others, Elijah McCoy (1843-1929), the inventor of the automatic lubricator for oiling locomotives, [who was] credited by some with being the person identified by the expression “The Real McCoy”; Granville T. Woods (1856-1910), the “black Edison,” who invented devices to improve electric railway cars and for controlling the flow of electricity as well as a steam boiler furnace, an automatic air brake and multiplex telegraphy; and Garrett Morgan (1875-1963), inventor of the three-way traffic light and the gas mask. More recent examples include Mark Dean, holder of three of the original nine patents for the IBM PC and Gilda Barabino, dean of the Grove School of Engineering of the City College of City University of New York, who also heads a biomedical engineering laboratory that is a leader in research on sickle cell anemia and cellular and tissue engineering.

Q: Similarly, this book approaches this topic from a variety of angles using everything from data analysis to personal anecdotes and in-depth interviews. Can you highlight one or two revelations you feel are particularly vital or important to recognize?

A: The one message that many of the authors make very clearly is the importance of a diverse faculty, and for African-American students, the presence of African-American faculty. These faculty members serve as role models and help create an affirming environment that facilitates success for African-American students. The percentage of African-American engineering faculty in predominantly white colleges and universities is approximately 2 percent and has not improved significantly over the past decade. The paucity of African-American faculty is a major reason that there are so few African-American students entering doctoral programs in engineering.

Q: Presumably written well before Justice Antonin Scalia specifically raised the idea of "mismatch" theory during oral arguments for a recent affirmative action case, the last chapter of this book also mentions those ideas in the context of prescribing "disaggregated accountability." Can you talk about what that is and what, if any, light this book can shed on the mismatch debate?

A: Accountability for improving opportunities and success of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering education should exist at various levels in a higher educational institution. Presidents, provosts, deans and faculty members all should be held accountable for ensuring an environment of equity and inclusion for all students. No single person or office is solely accountable. Several of the chapters in the book make it very clear that success for students, especially those who have been marginalized or historically underrepresented, depends to a large extent on the presence of a climate of affirmation and support throughout the institution.

Q: Lastly, what do you hope readers take away from this book?

A: We want readers to understand that in spite of a history of exclusion and barriers to engineering education and careers, African-Americans have made significant contributions to the technological capacity of the U.S. Furthermore, we wish to encourage African-American youth to prepare themselves for the immense opportunities that an engineering education and career can afford. We want educational leaders to assess their engineering programs to make certain that they are equitable and inclusive for all students. And for those corporate readers, we want them to examine their organizations to ensure that a level playing field exists for recruiting, hiring, developing and promoting their engineering employees, regardless of race, gender or other defining characteristics.



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.”




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