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Why aren’t more African-Americans looking toward science, technology, engineering, and math – which represent the fastest growing and hiring careers, commonly known as STEM?
The answer turns out to be a complex equation of self-doubt, stereotypes, discouragement and economics – and sometimes just wrong perceptions of what math and science are all about.
The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade. It may seem far-fetched for an under-educated black population to aspire to become chemists or computer scientists, but the door is wide open, colleges say, and the shortfall has created opportunities for those who choose this path.
STEM barriers are not unique to black people. The United States does not produce as high a proportion of white engineers, scientists, and mathematicians as it used to. Women and Latinos also lag behind white men.
Yet the situation is most acute for African-Americans.
Black people are 12 percent of the U.S. population and 11 percent of all students beyond high school. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
From community college through the Ph.D. level, the percentage of STEM degrees received by blacks in 2009 was 7.5 percent, down from 8.1 percent in 2001.
The numbers are striking in certain fields. In 2009, African-Americans received 1 percent of degrees in science technologies and 4 percent of degrees in math and statistics. Out of 5,048 PhDs awarded in the physical sciences, such as chemistry and physics, 89 went to African-Americans – less than 2 percent
“If math and science seem boring and of no use on a primary education level, who would want to pursue it while in college?” he says. “Especially when you don’t see many, if any, black men or women teaching.”
“Math and science are not something that black men and women sit around and pontificate about at home, dinner parties, the sports bar, hair salon, et cetera,” he says. “It doesn’t fit into their social idea of status.
“Let’s face it, there is no glory in saying, `I teach math or science.’ Career school teachers still seem to be very proletarian.”
Even some of Gordon’s fellow teachers ask how he can teach math, saying, “Funny, you don’t look like the nerd type.”
That’s a stereotype Jemison knows well.
“The media images you see of scientists are older white males who are goofy or socially inept in some way,” she says. “That’s the mad scientist, the geek” – and it doesn’t include role models for young black and Hispanic students.
Jemison, who watched “Star Trek” growing up, declines to call the black female character Lieutenant Uhura an inspiration, but the fictional space traveler did affect her.
“Her character was really an affirmation that my assumptions about going into space were shared by others, and that everyone had a right and a role to play. So that affirmation, for a little kid growing up, it’s an image of possibilities.”