Engineering Call Fails to Reach African-Americans

Elijah McCoy held 50 patents to do with materials and tools to keep steam locomotives properly lubricated.

Elijah McCoy held 50 patents to do with materials and tools to keep steam locomotives properly lubricated.

“At two” with engineering

There is no getting around it. Engineering has a tough time with African-Americans. The workplace culture can be unwelcoming. The trend lines in graduation rates point down. And the “achievement gap” among demographic groups in K-12 is large.

As Black History Month kicks off, it’s an opportune moment to consider some of these issues and highlight what people in the field are doing to remedy them. From the time of Elijah McCoy - whose highly effective train oil has been said to lie behind the phrase, "the real McCoy” - to today, African-Americans’ contributions to the history and successes of engineering and technology fields have been legion and unique.

The history

An interesting new book puts the topic of African-Americans in engineering into a useful historical context. Edited by all-time engineering luminary John Slaughter, Changing the Face of Engineering: The African-American Experience gathers 15 essays in a comprehensive history of African-Americans working in the field. It argues that their continued underrepresentation in the field puts the country at a disadvantage on varied fronts. Slaughter, the first African-American NSF Director and the one to establish an independent engineering directorate, gave a recent interview about the book to Inside Higher Ed.

Many role models to choose from

There is no shortage of African-American role models who have registered great accomplishments in the field. Among them:

  • Guion Bluford and Mae Jemison, the first African-American man (1983) and woman (1992) in space (and, in Jemison’s case, the first astronaut to appear in a guest role on Star Trek).
  • Mark Dean, pioneering computer engineer at IBM who holds three of the company’s original nine patents.
  • Ursula Burns, the first African-American woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company with Xerox.
Mae Jemison went into orbit on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992.

Mae Jemison went into orbit on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992.

Non-diversity in tech

Even so, the paucity of African-Americans in the tech sector has become a big story in the last 18 months or so. As some of the biggest employers of engineers, companies in the tech sector have come under pressure to address diversity problems as newly public data show alarmingly homogenous workforces.

Degrees are down

A challenge for any company looking to hire African-American engineers does lie in supply issues. While earning 9.65 percent of all 2013 undergraduate degrees, African-Americans earned only 3.99 percent of all engineering degrees. And this rate marks a drop from the 2009 rate of 4.39 percent, a period during which engineering overall increased from 4.36 percent to 4.72 percent of all undergraduate degrees.

Recently released, the 2016 NSF S&E Indicators overflow with authoritative data.

Recently released, the 2016 NSF S&E Indicators overflow with authoritative data.

The data behind these figures come from the National Science Foundation, publishers of the Science and Engineering Indicators and Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Both reports offer a bounty of angles from which to analyze the demographics of engineering graduates and professionals, among many other related topics. By these measures and more, African-Americans are clearly finding more compelling, accessible pathways in education than what engineering offers.

Where they come from

African-American engineering grads come from all kinds of schools. For 2014, the schools that graduated the most were:

  1. North Carolina A&T State University, 163
  2. Georgia Tech, 96
  3. Morgan State University, 74
  4. University of Florida, 65
  5. Florida International University, 61

Of the 101 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, only 14 have engineering programs. Naturally, US News has ranked them.

Within the cohort of African-American engineering graduates, women in fact perform at a higher rate than their non-African-American women peers in engineering. We took a long look at this phenomenon in an earlier blog post.

Helpful measures

People inside the engineering field have long grappled with the under-representation of African-Americans. For decades, the National Society of Black Engineers has served as a vital hub of outreach, networking, recruiting, and publicity in support of African-American engineers.

The society has recently launched an ambitious program to increase the number of black engineering graduates to 10,000 by 2025, up from about 3,500 now. “Be 1 of 10,000” includes efforts such as outreach to 7th-graders, an expansion of the society’s terrific Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK) Program, and efforts to build capacity in both K-12 and higher education institutions for African-Americans to succeed in engineering pathways.

Thousands of kids will participate in NSBE's SEEK Program, which will run in up to 13 cities this summer and offer fun, educational engineering learning experiences.

Thousands of kids will participate in NSBE's SEEK Program, which will run in up to 13 cities this summer and offer fun, educational engineering learning experiences.

More recent efforts to promote African-American engineering successes have proliferated.

These include major tech companies like Dropbox and Pinterest hiring high-level diversity officers and organizations like CODE2040, a dynamic, fast-growing non-profit working to promote opportunities in engineering and technology for both black and Latino students in the “innovation economy.”

A strong theme in our own high school publication, Start Engineering: A Career Guidebook, addresses the importance of increasing diversity in the field.

Our middle/high school book, Start Engineering: A Career Guide, features 52 pages of engaging, accessible stories and information about engineering, including how to appeal to under-represented groups.

Our middle/high school book, Start Engineering: A Career Guide, features 52 pages of engaging, accessible stories and information about engineering, including how to appeal to under-represented groups.

A difficult fix

The formula for increasing the numbers of African-American engineers has many elements. As a comprehensive report from the STEM business group, Change the Equation, says, “the biggest problem is scale.” Efforts have to reach, in a sustained fashion, such large numbers of students in so many different places that no one program will suffice. Understanding what kinds of changes will work in what kinds of environments has to spread widely enough for people in local environments to take the right kinds of actions with the resources available to them.

Have you seen anything that’s worked to make engineering more accessible to African-American students? Where do you think the key to the diversity challenges lie?

Leave a comment below to share your experiences. And please share with any interested friends or colleagues.

 


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

Our new Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.

And, for outreach or education programs, don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering books, What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide.