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New Minority Engineering Leader Stresses K-12 Exposure to Careers

Describing the past decade’s growth of African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans in the engineering profession as “marginal at best,” diversity efforts have to increasingly target under-represented K-12 students, according to the president and CEO of the National Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc. (NACME).

“Each of those groups has shown marginal increases in the baccalaureate degree production in engineering and in the engineering work force, but the reality is, there is a huge problem with proportionality,” Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail said.

The percentage of engineers from each minority group is still far below each group’s percentage in the overall population, he said, and it’s important to “create an engineering work force that looks like America.”

NACME has a 35-year history of promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at the college level, but recruitment of future engineers must start at the K-12 level, he told Diverse in an interview during which he discussed his vision for the organization.

“We have to start much younger with young people in order to really capture their interest,” he said. “At the middle school level, focusing on parents (and) counselors (to spread) engineering awareness. We design materials that actually inform young people about engineering as a career, the academic requirements to become an engineer, (and) the excitement of discovery and innovation.”

One of McPhail’s main goals will be to increase NACME influence at the state level to help individual states to develop K-12 STEM initiatives. One middle school initiative by NACME is in the Milwaukee public schools, which has a diverse, urban population of largely African-American and Latino students. NACME has partnered with Project Lead the Way in Milwaukee to provide educational and motivational materials, student scholarship support, and professional development funds for science and math teachers to develop extracurricular STEM activities.

At the college level, NACME will continue to provide scholarships to under-represented students, McPhail explained.

“We are very, very proud of our track record in higher education,” he said.

The organization has given out more than 22,000 scholarships to minority engineers at more than 160 colleges and universities around the country, he said. But just giving scholarship money to the universities is not enough.

“We also expect that these universities not only increase recruitment and enrollment, but increase in retention and graduation,” McPhail said.

Just getting students interested is not enough. The organization wants to make sure their engineering students receive mentoring and tutoring support, along with the chance to intern with NACME’s board companies, according to McPhail. Companies represented on the NACME board include Chevron, Lockheed Martin and Merck & Co., Inc. NACME scholarship students have an 83 percent college retention and graduation rate.

McPhail said the promotion of STEM careers, particularly those in engineering, is more important than ever.

“At NACME we refer to the situation as the new American dilemma,” McPhail said. This refers to “the absence of a representative number of underrepresented minorities and women in engineering. It severely impacts the capability of this nation to remain competitive in STEM and it’s something that is critical because the erosion of that competitive edge is something that impacts the quality of life of all of us.”

Before he became the sixth NACME president in September, McPhail was an established higher education leader. He was chancellor of the Community College of Baltimore County for seven years. McPhail served as president of St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley and LeMoyne-Owen College. He has held senior tenured faculty appointments at Morgan State, Delaware State and Pace universities. He also served for one year as chief operating officer of Baltimore Public Schools.

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