Why Aren’t More Blacks Pursuing Math and Science Careers?

Some suggest that many African-Americans perceive the fields to be too hard.

With unemployment above 16 percent in the African-American community, it almost makes one question why more Blacks aren’t looking toward science, technology, engineering and math fields (or STEM), also known as careers that are still hiring, today.


U.S. businesses have become virtually dependent on technology, and the Department of Labor expects computer science hiring to increase by 24 percent over the next seven years.


Engineering and math are also fields in high demand. Recently President Obama said one way to improve the economy is to train and hire more engineers, and most salaries for mechanical, civil and electrical engineers start at over $80,000.


Although Blacks are 12 percent of the U.S. population, in 2009 they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor's degrees, 4 percent of master's degrees and 2 percent of PhDs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


The numbers are even starker in certain fields. In 2009, African-Americans received 1 percent of degrees in science technology and only 4 percent of degrees in math and statistics. Of the PhDs awarded in sciences such as chemistry and physics, less than 2 percent—or 89—went to African-Americans.


“White men make up less than 50 percent of the U.S. population. We’re drawing [future scientists] from less than 50 percent of the talent we have available,” Mae Jemison, the first Black woman astronaut, who has a medical degree and a bachelor’s in chemical engineering, told the Associated Press. “The more people you have in STEM, the more innovations you’ll get.”


Because of the lack of participation from minorities, colleges say that opportunities for those who choose STEM career paths are abundant; many believe that Blacks, however, are not choosing the paths due to a number of reasons including self-doubt, stereotypes, discouragement, economics and mistaken perceptions about the fields.


“The media images you see of scientists are older white males who are goofy or socially inept in some way,” says Jamison. “That’s the mad scientist, the geek,” and it does not include role models for young Black and Hispanic students.


Other reasons some believe Blacks are not pursuing the fields includes a self-defeating perception that STEM fields are too hard, the pressure of not earning money quickly and discouraging academic environments.


“Today I talk to friends back home, and they say, `I wouldn’t be able to do good in college anyway.’ A lot of it is just confidence,” says Christopher Smith, a PhD student in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. “If people convince you that science and math is harder than everything else, and you already have low self-esteem, maybe that’s one reason there are so few Black scientists.”


In order to reverse the low numbers of those pursuing STEM careers, the U.S. STEM Education & Modeling Project suggests increasing the number of STEM-capable teachers and increasing P-12 student interest and natural curiosity in STEM majors and careers through experiments and exploring.


To contact or share story ideas with Danielle Wright, follow and tweet her at @DaniWrightTV.




(Photo: Commercial Appeal /Landov)

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