Enlarging and Diversifying Our Technical Talent Pool
T he idea was classically simple. Not just to educate our best young minds to the highest levels, but to deliver on the promise that all children can learn and achieve. That was the beginning, 25 years ago, of what first was known as the Southeast Consortium, then Southeast Consortium of Minorities in Engineering, and now SECME.
SECME was established in 1975 by engineering deans at seven southeastern universities: Alabama, Florida, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, Tennessee, Tennessee State and Tuskegee. The concern that drove that group and their academic counterparts across the United States was an acute national shortage of technical talent. A “down” cycle in the aerospace industry had led to a dramatic drop in engineering enrollments.
The search for solutions pointed to one answer: to develop and grow the largely untapped talent in two population groups then grossly under-represented (at less than 1 percent each) in the engineering profession — namely, women and minorities.
SECME was born as a collaborative effort joining school districts, engineering universities and industry/government investors. The partnership of K-12 and higher education with their ultimate clients and customers, business/industry and government, was the defining element in the original SECME “framework.” The basic commitment then, as now, was to achieve excellence in K-12 teaching and learning. The path was to be an intensive, rigorous investment in teacher professional development. Their goal was to renew and refresh, in both mind and spirit, classroom leaders who represent such a priceless — and, unfortunately, all too often undervalued and underappreciated — national asset.
The founding deans reasoned that by affecting teachers, all students would benefit. They knew, of course, that engineering simply applied math and science to solve real-world problems — and that such a practical approach could make a huge difference.
As SECME begins its second 25 years, it’s fair to ask how far we have come. What is the bottom line on our efforts to enlarge and diversify the national pool of cutting-edge technical talent? In a sense, that’s the familiar question that divides optimists — I among them — and pessimists, “Is the glass half full, or is it half empty?”
According to data from different sources, minorities today represent 6 to 8 percent of all U.S. engineers, compared to less than 1 percent 25 years ago. That substantial percentage growth in a growing profession is the good news. But the not-so-good news is the still enormously challenging flip side: There remains a persistent, very severe under-representation of African Americans, Hispanics, Mexican Americans and American Indians in our national technical community — groups that now make up nearly 25 percent of the population at large.
Clearly, much has been accomplished. Just as clearly, a huge challenge remains. That said, today we can celebrate what already is, thanks to SECME and many related initiatives and investments, a remarkable fulfillment of the noble dream and determined pursuit of those founding deans of engineering in 1975.
Their unflagging commitment to engineering excellence and an equitable sharing of the opportunities in the marketplace with minorities, women and under-served populations continues to resonate at Georgia Tech — and with all of our now 40 engineering university partners in SECME.
As the results of the last 25 years testify, the SECME school-university-industry partnership “model” has proven to be profound and enduring. What other educational innovation, we might ask, has remained so vibrant and demonstrably effective and so true to a basic idea and ideal over that time span?
I believe that above all, the SECME experience tells us never to underestimate the power of pursuing a compelling vision that is absolutely right, relevant and needed. Obviously, this vision is no less important to our educational mission and purpose today.
SECME’s “Silver Celebration” is a milestone that should inspire us all to set a course for the future of our higher education enterprise and its pre-college outreach that will be as bold and insightful and as productive and results-oriented as the one charted in the 1970s by SECME’s founders.
Dr. G. Wayne Clough is president of the Georgia Institute of
Technology in Atlanta.
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