Recognizing the Importance of African-Americans in STEM

A common STEM-related topic is the lack of gender and racial diversity in the workforce. Diversity in any field allows for different views to be incorporated into the work, which improves quality. In honor of Black History Month, this blog will highlight inspirational and influential African-Americans in STEM and talk about the racial gap currently present in the STEM workforce. 

Inspirational People:

Shirley Ann Jackson 

In the 1970’s, Jackson became the first woman to receive a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she studied subatomic particles. She was then appointed Chairman of the U.S Nuclear by Bill Clinton and became the 18th president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She was the first African-American woman to fill both of these roles.   

Frank Greene 

Greene earned his bachelors in science from Washington University in St. Louis, his master of science from Purdue University, and a PhD from Santa Clara. After finishing at Santa Clara in 1970, Greene was an Electronics Officer for the United States Air Force for four years. He then went on to be the CEO, founder and board member of a variety of different STEM-related companies. In order to improve STEM literacy at the college level, he also spent time teaching. 

Kimberly Bryant

Bryant worked in the biotechnology field for 20 years and was extremely successful. She then created Girls Who Code (GWC) in 2011: a non-profit meant to empower girls and minority groups to pursue their love for STEM. By creating GWC, Bryant is giving everyone, regardless of race or gender, the mentorship and education necessary to succeed in a STEM career. One of her main motivations in advocating for girls and underrepresented groups was her daughter Kia. 

Aprille Ericsson-Jackson 

Ericsson-Jackson received her bachelors of science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and her PhD from Howard University in mechanical engineering, more specifically, aerospace; she was the first African-American. She now works for NASA and was honored in 2019 by the National Society of Black Physicists. 

George Washington-Carver 

Carver was born a slave but went on to become one of the most influential inventors and STEM educators of his time. His inventions were mainly focused on improvements for farmers and their land. He discovered that repeatedly planting and harvesting cotton crops depletes the nutrients in the soil. To fix that, he found “nitrogen-fixing” plants that would help the soil regain nutrients and become ready to grow cotton again. 

Daniel Hale Williams 

In 1893, Williams became the first doctor to successfully perform open-heart surgery and the man, James Cornish, lived for many years after the surgery. He was also the first man to open an Interacial Hospital in Chicago. This gave African-American doctors somewhere to work without race being a factor and gave African-American patients somewhere to receive quality healthcare.  

Patricia Bath 

Bath received her undergraduate degree from Hunter College and then went on to get her medical degree from Howard University in 1968. She became the first black woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology. After that, she went to UCLA and worked as an assistant professor of surgery and was the first female faculty member in the ophthalmology department at the university. Bath is also the inventor of the Laserphaco Probe. She was the first African-American female doctor to receive a medical patent.  

African-American Representation in STEM:

The STEM workforce is lacking black, hispanic and asian workers that would create a more diverse work environment. According to a study conducted by Pew Social Trends, eight out of 10 Americans feel that having a diverse workplace is “at least somewhat important” and of that group 26 percent categorized it as “extremely” important. Respectively, 45 percent think that this diversity creates a better opportunity for the organization to succeed, giving individuals equal chance to excel professionally. 

The Pew Social Trends study also found that African-Americans were more likely to see racial diversity as important than their white coworkers. The results said, “blacks in STEM are about four times as likely as whites in STEM to say their workplace doesn’t pay enough attention to increasing racial and ethnic diversity.” It was a 35 point difference with 84 percent of African-Americans finding it important compared to 49 percent of their white counterparts.

African-Americans represent only 22 percent of management, financial operations and professional occupation positions. They also only make up 6 percent of all engineers. These low percentages highlight the need for more diversity in these positions. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that the most popular degrees among African-Americans are business administration, psychology, nursing, and criminal justice. Dr. Brian Joseph, a freelance writer and educational consultant, addressed that African-Americans were the least likely to obtain a STEM degree in comparison to other races. With the high earning potential in science, technology, engineering and math degrees, Dr. Brian Joseph emphasizes the need for African-Americans to have the opportunity to pursue these degrees and careers if they are passionate about it.

There is no easy fix to shrinking the lack of racial diversity in STEM. However, the promotion of all people, despite gender or race, to pursue STEM careers has increased over the years. As this continues to be the case, there will be more African-American mentors available to help youth follow their passions in STEM and succeed professionally. 

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