U.S. Is Becoming More Diverse, But Is The Online Population?

According to a National Science Foundation study, only five percent of scientists and engineers in the U.S. are African-American. Host Michel Martin speaks with Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County about the challenges blacks face in the tech world. They're joined by Silicon Valley techie Ayori Selassie and digital lifestyle expert Mario Armstrong. This segment originally aired Nov. 27, 2013 on Tell Me More.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we’ll tell you about a young doctor who did something many thought impossible. She set up the first air ambulance service in Nigeria. She’ll tell us how, and even more important, why she did it. That’s in just a few minutes. But first we go back to a conversation you probably hear a lot these days - about the opportunities in the science and technology fields. For some time now, economists have been predicting that the STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and math - will provide a growing number of the jobs in the coming years. But at the same time, there is concern that people of color could be left behind. Today, we're going to drill down on just one group.According to a study by the National Science Foundation, African-Americans were just 5 percent of scientists and engineers working in their field in 2010, even though blacks represent 12 percent of the U.S. population. And yet there are African-Americans making their mark in the industry. I recently spoke with Freeman Hrabowski. He is the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. It is a leader in graduating students of color in the STEM fields. We were joined by digital tech commentator Mario Armstrong and Ayori Selassie. She is the cofounder and executive director of the Bay area-based Pitch Mixer Entrepreneur Forum. That’s a group that helps aspiring tech entrepreneurs pitch their ideas. And I began our conversation by asking Freeman Hrabowski why people should be concerned about matters of race when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math.

FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: It matters because the population in our country is becoming increasingly diverse. We know that well before the midpoint of the century - something like 2040 quite frankly - we will no longer talk about minority and majority. We're talking about people of color representing at least 50 percent of the population. And there's so many jobs to be filled. And so we need ways of increasing the number of people from all races - men and women - who can succeed in these areas.

MARTIN: Mario, you've been on tour speaking to students across the country.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Yes.

MARTIN: Your tour is called Dream, Create, Go! - what do you see as the biggest challenge facing black students in particular? We're focusing on that today.

ARMSTRONG: You know what's interesting? I see this huge appetite. Kids want to go into these fields. The problem that I see quite often is that there's a disconnect between connecting why they should pursue these fields and their passions. In other words, a lot of times, I see people wanting to push technology down kids throats and get them to try to fulfill these pipeline issues. Where I think if you take a different approach, which we do on our show, is we try to find out what are kids' passions?And how do we tie - I call it STEAM 'cause we do add arts into this - STEAM - how do we tie that to their passions? Thereby giving them relevancy to wanting to learn math. If you want to become a video game programmer, you cannot do that if you don't understand trigonometry, geometry and the basics of laws of physics. So if you can tap into a child's passion, then you peel back the layers and find out what the STEM or STEAM is in those passions.

MARTIN: Ayori, what about you? As we mentioned, you're based in San Francisco and you help aspiring tech entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to experts. What do you see as - why aren't there more African-Americans in Silicon Valley?

AYORI SELASSIE: I think it's all social. I think it's all about community and how people gain exposure and how people gain support in those communities. So particularly in the Africa-American community, we've had - we've suffered from the digital divide for a long time. Now we see that closing with mobile devices and things of that nature, but that divide has affected our communities and our society until this point. And so parents are particularly unprepared to handle their children and to support their children in STEAM and STEM - STEM especially. And so we really need to address that social issue and help in that area.

MARTIN: Well, could you talk a little more about that, Ayori, because, you know, we were talking about swimming, for example, and we were talking to a famous, you know, Olympic swimmer who's African-American. And he was saying that because a lot of parents of color - black parents in particular - don't have exposure to swimming, they say they treat water like fire. Stay away from it. But that's not really the case with tech is it? I mean, these parents are not discouraging their kids from engaging with it. I mean - so where do you think the gap is? Is it just that they don't know - they don't know how to steer their kids? What do you think it is?

SELASSIE: Yeah. So I think that the parents don't discourage the children from going into STEM, but other areas do. Right? So, for example, if you look at the image of technology, if you look at the sciences - do you see African-Americans reflected there in highly visible areas and highly visible positions in the media? No, you don't. So that's an automatic discouragement. But then on the other side, with regard to encouragement, our parents don't generally encourage us to study these areas and say, you know what, you're really going to be great in this area and, by the way, here is how I'm going to support you. So we really need to support the parents and the families and give them that extra support so they know how to encourage them and they really feel supported in encouraging those students.

MARTIN: Professor Hrabowski?

HRABOWSKI: Right. You might be surprised to know, Michel, that a third of the students who go to college of all races, including African-Americans, go to college with an interest in majoring in STEM. So there is more interest than we know, that's number one. The problem is that most of the students, of all races, who go to college with an interest in STEM don't graduate in STEM. So there are two things to be done. Number one, to encourage more kids to know more about the possibilities. Mario's right, we need to be showing the connection between their passions and the technology. When we bring kids on campus from the city - from Baltimore - to our campus and they see students from 150 countries, including African-Americans, working in technology, really focused on the work - the kids get excited. They want to know about it.They want to know what does it take to get to this point. So we can do that by exposing the children to the possibilities and by helping teachers. We have to give teachers more exposure so that they can know how you use geometry one day in engineering, for example. But secondly, we've got much more to do at the college level in supporting students of all races - including African-Americans - to ensure that those who come with an interest in those areas actually succeed in those areas.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is an encore conversation with Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Ayori Selassie of Pitch Mixer and digital lifestyle expert Mario Armstrong. We’re talking about some of the challenges minorities face when trying to find support, while seeking education and employment in science, technology, engineering and math - so-called STEM fields. We also asked students from Howard University Middle School about some of their concerns and we heard this from a student named Miles.

MILES: As a minority in America, why do you think it is so imperative to give back to the community and why do you think it's important to cooperate with other African-Americans to help other people?

MARTIN: Mario do you want to take that?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I just think that this is exactly what we're talking about, when people want to write off, if you will, kids' interest in really wanting to be positive, impact makers in their lives. This is a seventh-grade kid that's asking a very thought-provoking question. And he's trying to interpret and understand and get the resources and the steps to take. We have to take a more active role of embracing, picking up someone else's child to help them see a role model that they may have not seen before and answer these questions because it's all about - and Dr. Hrabowski will totally support this, and this is what he's all about - it's about problem solving. He's asking a question to solve a problem that he's dealing with. And if we can develop more problem solvers, we have more kids that we'll find into these disciplines.

MARTIN: I have a different - I have a different question for Dr. Hrabowski. So, Mario, I'm going to ask you - ask you, though, to focus on his specific point, though. Do you think there is some special obligation? Some people don't think there is. I mean, some people feel that this kind of focusing on different ethnic groups is polarizing and destructive.

ARMSTRONG: So look, I come from understanding that perspective as well as wanting to embrace a larger picture. So with that being said, you cannot leave behind - it is my obligation to make sure that I reach back - and in droves, not one or two. If I can impact one, that's great. If someone listening can impact one, that is phenomenal. But if we can impact many within our own culture, that is phenomenal. But I don't want to be exclusive to the broader impact and the broader culture. So, yes.

MARTIN: I am going to ask you to answer that, Dr. Hrabowski.

HRABOWSKI: I want to answer that. You know what I love about UMBC? Students of all races want to help children. And so I've got kids who are white, Asian-American and African-American working with Baltimore City kids. And what those children see is authenticity. I do want African-Americans to be interested in helping other students, including African-Americans, but I also want people to think about helping children. What happens is this - when those kids of any race see a student or any adult who cares, they connect to that person. And so I want to encourage us, in our country, to reach out to help these children - African-Americans, Hispanic, poor white kids and others. And it's amazing to me how children connect to authenticity.

MARTIN: Ayori, I have a question for you. This is from Xavier, who's another student at Howard University Middle School.

XAVIER: Do you have a portfolio in the stock market? And what made you want learn entrepreneurship?

MARTIN: Drilling right down into your business, Ayori.

ARMSTRONG: Love it.

SELASSIE: Oh, my God. That's awesome. I do have a portfolio in the stock market. And I've wanted to pursue entrepreneurship because independence is important to me. I wanted to ensure that I was able to provide support for not only my daughter, but also my nieces, my nephews, my grandchildren. And it's really important for us to leave an inheritance for our next generations, and that is our social responsibility. And we really need to really charge forward in fulfilling that. And in order to do that, we have to work together. We have to share. We have to share knowledge. We have to - we can't have those behind us have to do the same struggles that we faced. And so it is our social responsibility to help each other.

MARTIN: That was Ayori Selassie of Pitch Mixer. She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Digital lifestyle expert Mario Armstrong was in our New York studios. And here in our Washington, D.C. studio – Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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