You may have missed this. On June 10, groups named Shut Down STEM and Particles for Justice led nearly 6,000 scientists – and even journals like Nature — in a stop work day to protest “systemic racism in STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math) professions.
“In the wake of the most recent murders of Black people in the U.S., it is clear that white and other non-Black people have to step up and do the work to eradicate anti-Black racism,” the website Shut Down STEM said in a statement.
The Particles for Justice website stated, “Therefore, as physicists, we believe an academic strike is urgently needed: to hit pause, to give Black academics a break, and to give others an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-Black racism in academia and their local and global communities.”
Their website also blares: “We recognize that our academic institutions and research collaborations — despite big talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion — have ultimately failed Black people…. Black representation among physics faculty is non-existent at most institutions, and it is widely known that Black students often feel unwelcome, unsupported, and even unsafe in their physics departments and predominantly white campuses.”
Supporting evidence for this dates at least to a 2006 article in Physics Today by Shirley Malcom, who at the time was the director of the education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Malcom reported that in 2003, while women received only 22 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 18 percent of PhDs awarded in physics by U.S. colleges and universities, that number dwarfed the 3.5 percent and 2.3 percent of those degrees that went to Black Americans. In 2004, the numbers were even worse – women received 15.5 percent and Black Americans about 1 percent of physics doctorates.
Now, a brand new report from a task force organized by the American Institute for Physics (AIP) calls for “systemic changes” to increase the number of Black Americans obtaining bachelor’s degrees in physics. The TEAM-UP report states that “African American students have the same drive, motivation, intellect, and capability to obtain physics and astronomy degrees as students of other races and ethnicities.”
Their persistent underrepresentation in these fields, the report concludes, is due to (1) the lack of a supportive environment in many departments and (2) the enormous financial challenges. The first cause, they noted, can be addressed by creating a “sense of belonging” in an academic environment that is all too often plagued by “identity-based harassment including microaggressions and acts motivated by bias and racism.”
“Physics identity” is strengthened in Black American students when they have same-race role models in the faculty, are routinely invited and financially supported to participate in the established activities of the profession, and are able to connect their physics education to activities that benefit their communities.”
One goal is to allocate $1.2 million to encourage 150 African American students a year – across all historically black colleges and universities – to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics. The report noted that HBCUs saw a 42 percent decline in federal funding for each full-time student from 2003 to 2015, yet it failed to note a bipartisan 2019 law, signed by President Trump, that will permanently provide more than $250 million a year to HBCUs and other institutions that serve large numbers of minority students.
Not that long ago, there was a national hue and cry over the lack of women in professional STEM jobs, especially in certain fields. While women today earn a majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees (and nearly half of PhDs) in biological sciences, social sciences, and psychology, their numbers are far less impressive for computer sciences (20 percent of doctorates), engineering (23 percent), and physical sciences (19 percent). Just 15 percent of U.S. direct science and engineering jobs are held by women.
Western Governors University found that “young women see few women going into science, technology, engineering, and math fields, so they have fewer role models and examples to follow…. Most young people share their experiences finding someone they look up to and admire and pursuing a career path because of them.” Sounds just like AIP’s reason number one for the shortfall of Black Americans in these fields.
WGU acknowledges that the long-term dominance of men in STEM fields has created a taboo for women scientists and technologists and notes that women in these fields can be stereotyped. Sexism may be the underlying raison d’etre for the anti-female bias that haunts STEM professions, despite the fact that “research has shown that young women perform just as well as men in these fields.” [Sound familiar?]
WGU offered three ways to increase the number of women in STEM fields: highlight women scientists; engage young girls to get excited about STEM; and fight sexism. Not oddly at all, these are almost identical [exchanging racism for sexism] to the AIP recommendations for encouraging more Black Americans to enter STEM professions.
What IS odd, however, is that none of the STEM stop work scientist groups ever brought up the elephant in the room – the poor performance of Black American students in far too many of our urban high schools (which has little or nothing to do with any lack of inherent ability and everything to do with the racism of big city political machines).
A 2016 report from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics found that while boys and girls score similarly on many state tests, boys are much more likely than girls to pursue careers in some math-intensive fields, such as engineering and computer science. More significantly, researchers consistently found that gender gaps are larger among higher-performing students who are more likely to pursue advanced degrees.
By contrast, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 19 percent of African American fourth graders and 13 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math – compared to the national averages of 40 percent and 33 percent for all students.
The NAEP also found that only three states saw more than 5 percent of African-American students in their graduating class pass at least one Advanced Placement test in a STEM subject during high school, and four states saw less than 1 percent of African-American students graduate having passed one STEM subject exam.
The numbers are even worse in inner cities. Project Baltimore analyzed 2017 testing data and found that 13 of the city’s 39 high schools had not a single student proficient in math. [Just as sadly, only 10 percent of black boys in Baltimore City were reading at grade level.] These results are even sadder than U.S. Department of Education data from 2011, which found that only 20 percent of Chicago’s public school eighth graders (of any race) were grade-level proficient in math.
Given the well-established fact (see above) that Black American students have the same drive, motivation, intellect, and capability to achieve academic excellence even in STEM subjects, two things stick out. First and foremost is that while science, technology, engineering and math are NOT inherently racist, bringing more Black Americans into the field will require creating a supportive environment in these schools and the communities they serve. Second, these students – beginning very early in life — will need better tools and resources to counter the widespread financial and emotional poverty many face.
The rub here is that schools today are not even open and may not even open this fall, depending on both the corona virus outbreak and the ongoing civil unrest — which is aimed at improving the lives and elevating the general perception of the value of the lives of African Americans.
On the upside, however, many students stuck at home have been provided with laptop computers by their schools – providing opportunities for tutoring by both their teachers and the many millions of protesters who have at least PROFESSED a their belief that black lives matter.
And while having tutors and mentors who are people who “look like you” may be a bonus, it is not and has not ever been a necessity. To demand that students of color desiring to enter STEM fields where there are today very few professionals of color and at the same time to demand that only professionals of color be their mentors is virtually impossible.
What matters most is that the tutor or mentor believes in the ability and the bright future of the student and that the student grows in that same belief and hope. Politicians of all stripes have talked the talk for decades, but the evidence of their failure to bring about real change lies smoldering in the streets and in the hearts of millions who are now demanding real change.
And while real change begins with removing the old stereotypes imprinted in the minds of far too many of us, it will require a joint effort of all of us to invest our time and treasure in the lives of young people seeking a better, more fulfilling life and career.