Historically Black, Majority White Schools Unite to Boost Minority STEM Degrees

CHARLOTTE, N.C.
Four historically Black North Carolina
colleges and universities will partner with four majority White counterparts in
Virginia to double the
average number of minorities completing degrees in science, technology,
engineering and math.

The
VA-NC-Alliance for Minority Participation will combine university exchange
programs with intensified, personal instruction to bring the number of Black,
Latino and American Indian tech graduates to 1,050 over the next five years.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville will lead the
program, supported by a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation
as it tries to pull more American students into “STEM” fields.

“We must
receive the talent from whatever source, whatever part of our country that is
available. You never know where the next Nobel prize laureate will come from,”
said A. James Hicks, who has helped organize similar alliances involving 37
states.

North
Carolina participants include Bennett College for Women, in Greensboro; Elizabeth City State University; Saint
Augustine’s College, in Raleigh; and Johnson C. Smith
University, in Charlotte.

At Smith, the
effort means a summer immersion program teaching students firm study habits, as
well as formal opportunities to share resources, said B.K. Chopra, a biology
professor and alliance participant.

“It’s going to
place many of these students in several research programs during the summer and
eventually into graduate programs where we desperately need minorities,” he
said.

In addition to
U.Va., the Virginia participants
are: George Mason University, in Fairfax; Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond; and Virginia
Tech, in Blacksburg.

Of almost 4,500
STEM degrees the eight schools conferred
between 2001 and 2005, barely 12 percent went to Blacks, Latinos and American
Indians.

“All the
schools have had some participation in this area and we’ve all done some
things, but what this enables us to do is to work collectively,” explained
Carolyn Vallas, director of U.Va.’s Center for Diversity in Engineering.

Schools will
organize high school outreach programs aimed at recruiting and retaining
minorities in science and engineering, Vallas said. Students also may spend
time at other alliance campuses.

For instance, a
student from Bennett might live in a George Mason dorm while interning in
technology-rich Washington, D.C.

“In the past,
the student might have a difficult time taking that position because they don’t
have a place to stay within their budget,” Vallas said.

Alliance students also
will meet periodically to share what they’ve learned — a chance for minorities
in largely White-identified majors to bond.

It’s a support
system acutely missing at some majority institutions, said Darryl Dickerson,
chairman of the National Society of Black Engineers, and a biomedical
engineering student at Indiana’s Purdue University.

“Minority
students, particularly at majority institutions, they’re already isolated,”
Dickerson said. “At the very beginning, you’re thinking you’re on the chopping
block.”

The National
Science Foundation has increasingly turned to Blacks, Latinos and American
Indians as it attempts to boost the number of students earning scientific
degrees. Asians are considered better-represented in the STEM fields.

STEM degrees can
translate into high-paying jobs, from engineering anti-terrorism measures to
building the next iPhone.

But minorities
tend not to be interested when their only image of a scientist is “an older
White male with glasses and a white coat on,” Hicks said.

Hicks, who is
Black, entered the sciences after a professor gave him the lab coat off his
back and urged him to switch majors. Hicks thought creating a community among minority
STEM majors would help current majors excel,
and pull new ones in.

“When they are
brought together in a sort of nurturing environment, we see what happens,” he
said. “And what happens is that students from these targeted groups will
perform and perform very well.”

At Smith,
Shenita Richardson was one of a handful of Black students listening as Chopra
explained the day’s lesson recently.

The graduating
senior was excited about the school’s new immersion program and the leg up it
would mean for the students coming behind her.

“When I was a
freshman, I wasn’t prepared,” she said. “I thought it was gonna be easy.”

– Associated Press

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