Who fits the stereotype of scientific or mathematical genius? Traditionally, racial and gender stereotypes influence who “conforms” to mainstream society’s image of scientific proficiency and intellectualism. Although one of the most well known contemporary scientists in the world is African American physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the dominant culture still portrays science and math as disciplines that only straight white and Asian males can master.
At 12% of the U.S. population, African Americans are severely under-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs.” Indeed, “in a typical year, 13 African-Americans and 20 Latinos of either sex receive Ph.D.’s in physics.” This disparity is informed by the egregiously low number of black students taking college preparation, honors and Advanced Placement classes and tests. For African American students, the absence of quality college prep instruction at the middle and high school levels is often one of the most significant roadblocks to college access. For example, at Gardena High School in South Los Angeles African American students are 27% of the population but only 4% are enrolled in AP classes.
In a recent New York Times article entitled “Why are There Still So Few Women in Science?” Author Eileen Pollack reflected on attending a Yale University event where five female physics majors talked about their academic challenges. She noted that one “young black woman told me she did her undergraduate work at a historically black college, then entered a master’s program designed to help minority students develop the research skills and one-on-one mentoring relationships that would help them make the transition to a Ph.D. program. Her first year at Yale was rough, but her mentors helped her through.”
Finding mentors, navigating the complexities of subject requirements and keeping afloat academically are a natural part of being in college. But these challenges are often even more daunting for African American students in STEM departments where there are few African American faculty and administrators. For many black students, the absence of tenured black STEM professors exacerbates the racist and sexist low expectations that they confront in the classroom and on campus.
On Thursday, November 14th at Gardena High, Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the Women’s Leadership Project will sponsor a seminar that examines these issues with a panel of talented young Black STEM professionals from South Los Angeles. Seminar participants will discuss college preparation, admission, mentoring, retention, confronting discrimination and their path to graduation:
Brandon Bell is a 2007 graduate of King-Drew Medical Magnet (in South L.A.) and a 2011 graduate of Princeton University where he majored in molecular biology. He’s the founder of an activist organization called Wisdom From The Field and has dedicated himself to the empowerment of his community.
Garaudy Etienne graduated from New Jersey’s West Orange High School in 2007. He is currently an aerospace engineer at Northrop Grumman. He received his B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University in 2011.
Dr. Paul Robinson is an associate professor of Geographic Information Systems at Drew University and the Geffen School of Medicine. He received a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Southern California (2001), a Masters in geography from the University of South Florida (1993) and Bachelors in geography from Virginia Tech (1989).
Devin Waller is Exhibit Project Manager at the California Science Center. She received her B.S. in astrophysics from UCLA and her M.S. in Geological Sciences from Arizona State University.