Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Blacks in STEM Panel Tackles Myths and Stereotypes

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, technology, engineering and math as disciplines that only white and Asian males can master.

On Thursday, November 14th at Gardena High School, Devin Waller of the California Science Center and Brandon Bell of Children's Hospital discussed the challenges of being STEM professionals in a sector that has historically been inhospitable to African Americans. As the only black female astrophysics major in her graduating class at UCLA, Devin dealt with prejudice and stereotyping in her predominantly white and male science classes. Brandon encountered similar issues when he attended Princeton after graduating from the acclaimed King-Drew Medical Magnet in South L.A. During the discussion, he commented that he rarely saw African American faculty at Princeton outside of Ethnic Studies departments. And because he was an African American male from a South L.A. school some of his professors and deans reflexively assumed that he couldn't cut it in rigorous courses.

At 12% of the U.S. population, African Americans are severely under-represented in the 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 one of the most significant roadblocks to college access. At Gardena High, African American students are 27% of the population but only 4% are enrolled in AP classes.

As a black woman in one of the most elite science disciplines in the world, Devin commented that she felt the weight of sexist discrimination most acutely. She would frequently be shut out of study groups and get quizzical looks when she was in upper division science classes. Despite all of the so-called post-feminist advances in academia there are still few female role models of color in the sciences. 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."

Both Devin and Brandon stressed the importance of having mentors in high school and college. Although King-Drew has a strong college-going culture, Brandon had not been prepared to deal with being one of the few students of color in a massive lecture hall. 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 tenured African American faculty and administrators. Over the past several months both faculty and students at UCLA have confronted the administration on its lack of diversity, hostile climate for faculty of color and "micro-aggressions" against students of color (there are only 48 African American male students enrolled at UCLA in this year's freshman class). For many black students in STEM, the absence of tenured professors of color in their departments intensifies their sense of marginalization and invisibility. Both panelists attributed their success to having supportive family members and faculty mentors outside the STEM fields.

The Blacks in STEM panel is part of the WLP college and academic justice series and was attended by AP Physics, Biology and Algebra classes.

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