- Leaders in Research, Policy, and Education for the Sciences

And Then There Were None
A Report of Interest and Persistence among African American STEM College Students

Educational achievement among African American students is alarmingly low. In urban centers throughout the country over 70% of African American students (primarily boys) do not graduate from high school with their peers (Smith, 2004). In Cleveland, Ohio for example, only 19% of Black male high school students graduated with their peers in the 2001-2002 school year (Holzman, 2004). The achievement pattern in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is even worse. According to data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), African American 12th graders (male and female) score lower than Caucasian 8th graders on the science portion of the standardby ized NELS exam (Muller, Stage, & Kinzie, 2001). This represents a perforJomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. mance difference of four years. By any objective measure the educational underachievement of AfSankoré Institute rican American students is nothing short of a tragedy. Compounding the P.O. Box 20286 Cleveland, OH 44120 tragedy is the fact that African American students in particular (and African Americans in general) are inheritors of a tremendously great legacy of www.SankoreInstitute.org academic achievement in all areas, especially STEM. From Dogon astronomy, medicine in Kemet, and steel making in Tanzania (van Sertima, 1984) February, 2008 to Lattimer’s light bulb, Carver’s genius in founding the field of chemurgy

Losing the Legacy: The Problem of African American STEM Education


(which is the use of agricultural products in industry) (Kremer, 1987), and Dr. Mark Dean (pioneer computer developer at IBM), children of African descent have every reason to shine like stars in the science classroom. Additionally, by embracing this rich legacy of STEM achievement, African American students position themselves to become adults who can derive the full benefit of living in an increasingly tech savvy world. Whether pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, or computers (hardware or software, manufacturing or applications), rich financial rewards are found in those industries requiring STEM expertise. Sankoré Institute exists to help people of African descent reap the rich rewards that come with STEM expertise. For nearly 30 years African Americans have comprised fewer than 2% of PhD-holding scientists (National Science Board, 2000). This low percentage of African American STEM professionals is also found in science-related careers not requiring a Ph.D. (Malcom, George, & Van Horne, 1996). Unfortunately, most research aimed at understanding the participation of African Americans in STEM careers operates from a deficit model. These studies (a) assume deficiencies in the life history of African Americans; (b) survey large number of college students to identify and correlate “deficiencies” with race or academic major; and (c) interpret those “deficiencies” as “factors affecting career choice.” Studies conducted in this way tell us precious little about African American STEM career choices. The factors identified do not in themselves determine what courses students will take, what opportunities they will seek out, what majors they will declare, or why. Additionally, the inordinate focus on “factors affecting career choice” ignores the fact that the making of scientists (and other STEM professionals) is a social process. As such the factors identified do not tell us what types of mentorship African Americans receive from practicing scientists (most of whom are non-African American); the rates at which African Americans are not accepted into STEM programs of study; or the degree to which African Americans or offered career-building internship opportunities. The study summarized here is a departure from existing work. In this study, we interviewed three African American college students who were in the midst of making critical career decisions. Through our interviews we worked to understand the reasons they had for selecting STEM majors, and the issues that caused them to persist towards (or abandon) their goals of completing degrees in those majors. This study is useful in that it provides a rich description of the science knowledge and career decisions of three students. The details uncovered through this examination are useful for researchers in the construction of new and potentially more insightful studies; for schools and community agencies in redesigning service offerings; and for corporate and governmental agencies in modifying and implementing policy. Respondents The respondents in this study were African Americans who enrolled in and completed at least 1 year in college. By their self-description, all three of the respondents began their college ca-

What Current Research Tells Us


And Then There Were None


reers with the intention of pursuing science-related careers. By the conclusion of the study, two of the respondents decided not to pursue science-related careers, whereas the third continued working toward a science-related career. The first respondent, Chris Tompkins , was in his junior year at Talbert State University (TSU) . His first 2 years were spent in the School of Engineering. By the end of his sophomore year he decided that he no longer wanted to pursue an engineering career. He spent the first semester of his junior year taking business courses and revisiting his decision about whether to pursue an electrical engineering career. The second respondent, Marty Milan, was a sophomore who had majored in business since beginning studies at TSU. When Marty began her college studies, she had been interested in psychiatry. Marty’s plan to become a psychiatrist was to obtain a bachelor’s degree in business, a master’s degree in psychology, and then to attend professional school to pursue her medical degree. The report on Marty may appear to refer to psychiatry and psychology interchangeably. When referring to a career Marty talked about psychiatry, and when referring to a degree she talked about psychology. The third respondent, Amir Jones, was in his fourth year at TSU and his second year in the School of Pharmacy. Amir wanted to earn his degree in pharmacy and pursue a career in pharmaceutical research. Interviews and Analysis Each respondent participated in eight audio-taped interviews, each of which had an average duration of 1 hour. The interviews were conducted over a 6-month period. Data collection followed the pattern of Spradley’s (1979) ethnographic interview. Interviews began with a relatively broad focus, interspersed with data analysis, which narrowed the focus of inquiry throughout data collection. The result is a respondent-informed understanding of each student’s career decisions. Findings are presented in the original report as narrative-style reports of students’ career decisions focusing on their background, initial and sustained interest in science-related careers, and fit between deep-seated goals and science-related careers. What did we learn from this data? After several hours of in-depth interviews on issues related to race, science, careers (generally speaking), and their own personal career decisions, data have shown that respondents’ interest in science-related careers is directly related to the degree to which they perceive those careers as being supportive of deep-seated goals. Chris initially became interested in engineering when he learned that he could earn enough money to avoid a life struggle and be successful given his mathematical aptitude. His interest subsided when he came to perceive engineering as an impediment to his deep-seated goals: It would limit his personal relationships, he would not be successful given his dislike for the work, and he would have no time for personal activities. Marty’s initial interest in psychiatry was supported by her desires to earn a high income, help people, and learn about mental illnesses. Her disinterest grew when she experienced a hurtful clinical intervention. She began to question whether psychiatry could help her to realize her deepseated goals of a successful career and financial independence in a short time frame, and the ability to help others through her work. Amir’s interest in pharmaceutical research resonated strongly with his deep-seated goals. Through pharmaceutical research Amir could (a) be more spiritual by putting God first (relying more on natural treatments); (b) be a good human being by mentoring, having a family, and working to better humanity; (c) stand up for truth by being sincere and work-



ing to find cures to disease; and (d) exercise a supreme work ethic by being self- reliant, staying in good physical shape, and investing actively. Data have also shown that a deeper understanding of sciChris: A typical scientist is small in ence as a human endeavor better enables respondents to perstature, skinny, no build, small frame... ceive a science career as being supportive of his life goals. The bald, glasses, a geek, he walks funny. need to teach the nature of science is well recognized in sciHis children don’t know anything about the world, they’re bookworms, they ence education. What is more equivocal is what we teach about can’t communicate with other kids. the nature of science. Using Amir as a guide, four propositions He doesn’t spend time with his kids about the nature of science are key to his sustained career focus. because he’s constantly researching First, a degree and coursework is a credential needed to begin and working. I see his wife as being practicing science. Amir described the research community as a timid, shy, out of shape, not attractive. Her style is just all wrong, no sex ap- gentleman’s club and his degree as the key to begin practicing. peal... I don’t want to be like that and I The second and third propositions are that science is not always wouldn’t want my kids to grow up living practiced properly, and each scientist engages in the practice of that kind of life. science differently. Amir expressed this when describing the huResearcher: Is an engineer a scien- man immunodeficiency virus researchers and also when describtists? ing his ideal scientist and juxtaposing that against scientists that Chris: Yeah. Basically what I de- he has encountered. The fourth is that the practice of science can scribed was the majority of people in change and I can be a change agent. Amir expressed this when the school of engineering. describing his desire to develop more natural pharmaceutical ap~ Chris Tompkins describing the proaches. prototypical scientist. For the full In contrast, neither Chris nor Marty expressed agreement data report visit with any of the four propositions. First, both perceived coursewww.sankoreinstitute.org work as representative of their career work, which contributed to their decisions to change majors. Chris, disliking his work with circuits, determined he would not be happy in life working with circuits. Marty disliked looking at past psychological experiments and determined that she had no interest in the work of psychology. Second, Marty operated on the assumption that the science she observed was being practiced properly. When discussing her clinical treatment, Marty never questioned the ethics or effectiveness of the intervention. She assumed the treatment was ethical and effective; it was just something that she could not do. Third, both Chris and Marty operated on the assumption that there was one mode of practice for their respective fields. They both drew over arching conclusions on limited exposures. Chris based his image of all scientists on the electrical engineering faculty and his image of an engineer’s work on his own laboratory assignments. Marty based her image of psychology on an Introduction to Psychology course, her cousin, and one clinical psychologist. Fourth, neither Chris nor Marty viewed themselves as empowered to affect their respective fields or conform their careers to meet their own personal goals. Chris did not envision an engineer who took time for himself and his family. Marty did not envision herself developing new techniques of clinical intervention. What can we do to increase the participation of African Americans in science? The first insight this study gives us is that respondents’ interest in science-related careers is directly related to the degree to which they perceive those careers as being supportive of deep-seated goals. While this finding may not seem earth shattering, we must bear in mind that no study prior to this

Implications for Stakeholders

And Then There Were None


one has underscored the importance of students’ goals in relation to their STEM career attainment. Most importantly, school curricula generally and interventions (specifically aimed at increasing the participation of African Americans in STEM fields) rarely speak directly to students’ personal goals as part of their normal content. The second insight this study gives us is that respondents’ persistence towards STEM careers is more likely if they possess more sophisticated understandings of the nature of science. These insights suggest several steps that can be taken to increase the participation of African Americans in STEM fields. First, schools and universities, organizations of STEM professionals, STEM research organizations, corporations with vested interest in STEM fields, and even popular media can and should work to provide African American students with broad exposure to a wide range of scientists and scientific practice. This can be accomplished by… 1) …providing African American youth with a broad range of internship and externship experiences. The objective of such experiences must be to give African American youth opportunities to experience first hand and to observe the work that STEM professionals do. One day visits, and “internships” where students work on the far margins of STEM practice are insufficient. In fact, we saw with Chris that this type of exposure actually had a negative effect. Comparatively speaking, very few African American students come from homes where their parents work in STEM fields. So in order to level the playing field, we must find creative ways to provide African Americans with exposure similar to their non-African American counterparts. …provide African American youth with ongoing personal access to African American STEM professionals. The objective of such access must be to give African American youth opportunities to experience first hand and to observe the lives that STEM professionals live. When making career decisions students want answers to very straightforward practical questions. “How much money am I going to make? What kind of house am I going to live in? What kind of friends will I have? Where and how will I socialize? What will my schedule look like?” Again, not coming from homes with STEM professionals, far too many African American youth are at a disadvantage. By giving African American youth a peek into their lives, African American STEM professionals can greatly help to equalize what is a current inequity. …giving African American youth (a) opportunities to earn money by practicing STEM in the short term and (b) insight as to how they can leverage degrees in STEM to provide gainful employment for themselves in the long term. The reality for many African American youth is that they come from lower SES backgrounds than do their peers. More importantly, many of those who exercise their ambition




by going to college do so with the intention of building lucrative careers. They do not go to college to be broke. Without knowledge of what STEM professionals do and how they can become gainfully employed, STEM careers do not look attractive to African American youth. 4) …providing case studies of African American STEM professionals. Case study of this type is another tool by which African American students can experience (even if vicariously) the world of scientific practice and the lives of scientists. Such cases should avoid being trivial at all costs. It is insufficient to simply report who invented what. These cases should provide rich descriptions of the lives of African American STEM professionals. They could answer questions such as: “How did you get started in STEM? How old were you? If you could begin over, how would you better prepare yourself for your career? How many children do you have? What types of things do you do in your spare time?” These case studies should also work to demonstrate how African American STEM professionals could positively impact African communities.

Second, schools and universities, organizations of STEM professionals, STEM research organizations, corporations with vested interest in STEM fields, and even popular media can and should help African American students to see how STEM careers could be used to help them accomplish personal goals. This can be accomplished by…


…engaging African American students in goal setting (generally) and in STEM contexts (in particular). While it may not be a part of a typical science curriculum or intervention, goal-setting exercises are invaluable for students. Students’ personal goals should be referents throughout science courses, internship experiences, and even summer science camps. In this way we help students to be forward thinking about their future careers and lives. More importantly it helps them to be watchful for ways that STEM careers can help them to accomplish their personal goals. …helping students to plan career tracks for themselves. When asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” few 5th graders would respond, “Senior research technologist.” Why? Because few 5th graders know what a senior research technologist is or what they do. Unfortunately, this is the case for a majority of STEM careers. Schools do not typically teach career planning. In fact Chris summarized the typical lessons students get on career planning in schools, “I work hard, I get good grades, I get an internship, and then I graduate, and that’s all you have to do.” While there may be a kernel of truth to this lesson, African American STEM professionals and other caring adults are in good positions to help African American students understand the nuances of career preparation and career planning. …speaking directly to students’ lifestyle concerns and helping them to envision new possibilities. For many African American students the prospect of a profes-



And Then There Were None


sional career portends major lifestyle changes (such as a new neighborhood, new friends, new routines, and new modes of dress). While this is a manageable problem, it is also a source of real consternation. Whereas a new life as a business executive may be a manageable challenge, a new life as a “science geek” is often too much to bear. We can serve African American students well by helping them to envision new possibilities both for themselves personally and for the STEM careers that they may be considering.

Holzman, M. (2004). Public education and Black male students: A state report card. Cambridge, MA: Schott Foundation for Public Education. Kremer, G. R. (Ed.). (1987). George Washington Carver: In his own words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. Malcom, S. M., George, Y. S., & Van Horne, V. V. (1996). The effect of the changing policy climate on science, mathematics, and engineering diversity. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Muller, P. A., Stage, F. K., & Kinzie, J. (2001). Science achievement growth trajectories: Understanding factors related to gender and racial-ethnic differences in precollege science achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 981-1012. National Science Board. (2000). Science and engineering indicators 2000 (No. NSB 00-87). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Smith, R. A. (2004). Saving Black boys. The American Prospect, 15(2). Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston. van Sertima, I. (1984). Blacks in science ancient and modern. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.

Research Bytes is a production of Sankoré Institute designed to bring the findings and implications of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research to the attention of stakeholders and decisionmakers. The study described here was published in 2001 in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. The reference for the original article is... Lewis, B. F., & Collins, A. (2001). An interpretive investigation of the science career decisions of three African American college students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38, 599-621. The full original article can be downloaded from the publications page of the Sankoré Institute website at www.SankoreInstitute.org.

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