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Conference Says Broad Participation in S&T Education, Careers Drives U.S. Innovation
HBCU-UP student participants between sessions
[Credit: Image courtesy Mike Colella, colellaphoto.com]
Support for research-minded students at the nation's historically black colleges and universities can help the United States remain competitive in the global market for science and technology talent, according to speakers at a AAAS-organized research conference in Washington, D.C.
Speakers at the 2007 National Science Foundation Historically Black Colleges and Universities—Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) National Research Conference offered a clear prescription for encouraging diversity on the frontiers of science and technology: Fully support undergraduate research and developing innovative science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curricula. That, in turn, will expand the pool of talent available in STEM-related professions, they said.
Wanda Ward, deputy assistant director of NSF Education and Human Resources
"Programs like HBCU-UP are helping the United States remain STEM-competitive by producing the flexible, smart scientists who drive scientific and technological innovation around the world," said Ward, deputy assistant director of the NSF Education and Human Resources Directorate.
The conference, one of the biggest for African-American STEM undergraduate students, drew over 700 students and faculty and featured research presentations, networking sessions, professional development workshops, and plenary addresses by prominent researchers. It was organized by AAAS with a three-year, $975,000 National Science Foundation grant.
"AAAS is interested in encouraging young people with interest and talent to pursue careers in science, mathematics and engineering," said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. "Clearly these students are part of the future for STEM."
Ward said that the United States could soon be outpaced economically and intellectually by countries like China because it has been unable to maximize its production of a diverse, talented body of scientists.
"If the United States wants to be internationally competitive for talent, it needs to invest its resources in the right places," said Ward. "The quickest way for U.S. to do this is to invest in those populations that have traditionally been underserved by STEM education."
Ward added that African Americans are especially underrepresented in STEM graduate education, with minority males only comprising 4% of all male scientists with STEM Ph.D.s, and minority females comprising only 6% of all female scientists with STEM Ph.D.s.
Since the inception of HBCU-UP in 2000, NSF and HBCU-UP have contributed more than $142 million to support many of the more than 100 HBCUs around the country. The colleges and universities typically use the money for STEM curriculum enhancement, faculty development, undergraduate research, or institutional collaborations. In FY 2008, the NSF expects to award 14 new HBCU-UP grants for a total of $4 million dollars.
"While fostering the next generation of minority scientists does not fall solely on HBCUs, they do play, perhaps, the most important role," said Ward during her plenary.
In a letter read at the conference, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) said HBCUs provide a learning environment that allows students of color to learn skills and gain confidence to achieve in any environment. In 2000, HBCUs graduated 40% or more of all African Americans who received degrees in physics, chemistry, astronomy, environmental sciences, mathematics and biology, according to Johnson.
"African-Americans who graduate from HBCUs are more likely to go on to graduate school and complete doctoral degrees than African-American undergraduates from other institutions," Johnson noted.
As a long-time supporter of the nation's HBCUs, Johnson recently sponsored a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives reaffirming the importance of the minority-serving institutions for the United States.
"We must continue to strive for excellence in education; and through these colleges and universities we have built a strong foundation that stands as a backbone of the country's success," Johnson added later.
Yolanda George, deputy director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, said scientific meetings such as HBCU-UP are important, especially for young scientists, because they allow the students to develop professionally by presenting their research and communicating within an academic environment.
"The HBCU-UP meeting provides an opportunity for students from HBCUs to share their research and network with their peers and faculty from HBCUs and non-HBCUs," said George. "In addition, it provides the opportunity for African-American students to see young Ph.D.s who look like them and who are balancing career and family life."
Camille McKayle, the program director for HBCU-UP who is working with NSF while on leave from the University of the Virgin Islands, said that national meetings are a chance for students to "escape the small STEM community" that often forms on campus.
"It is very important that young scientists connect into the larger scientific community by publishing, networking and getting internships," said McKayle. "By meeting people at all stages of their careers and in different settings, it helps young scientists understand the requirement for success."
More than 70 exhibitors also attended the conference, many of whom were looking to attract bright undergraduates to their summer internships, workforce, or graduate schools. The diverse exhibitor rooms included representatives from the University of Alabama, the University of Washington, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and the Cleveland Clinic.
In addition to increasing the nation's talent pool, HBCUs encourage graduates to serve as role models by bringing their knowledge back to communities that have been underserved by science and technology and inspiring others to study and work in STEM fields.
Serving as role models for the HBCU undergraduates, the Graduate Scholars Program of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a group of HBCU graduates in STEM doctoral programs, served as session aides for the poster presentations.
The Graduate Scholars informally answered questions from the conference participants about the challenges in graduate STEM education and careers, especially those for minorities. The program came under the management of AAAS in 2003.
Carolyn Meyers, president of Norfolk State University
Carolyn Meyers, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Georgia Tech and is president of Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va., said that HBCUs are critical in "helping young minority scientists make a living and a life."
"HBCUs have a very special role in learning, transferring degrees, and most importantly, changing lives," said Meyers. "They show that skin color and STEM talent are not mutually exclusive."
Meyers said that when she was pursuing an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, Howard University in Washington, D.C., was the only HBCU with an engineering program. "Now there are many," she said. "That's called progress."
Conference organizers hope to encourage graduate schools and companies to co-sponsor the meeting in 2008, allowing more money to be allocated for travel grants to help colleges and universities send faculty and students to the meeting.
"We had a long waiting list for exhibitors and heard over and over from professors that they wanted to bring more students but just did not have the travel money," said George. "Those are great signs and we hope to harness that enthusiasm next year."
31 October 2007