Minorities Miss Out on High-Tech Careers

African Americans and others need more training in scientific and technological fields, an educator says

TO adequately address the nation's future needs, we must identify more training and professional growth opportunities for minorities in science and engineering. We must strive for a broad-based science education program that embraces the students not only as users of science, but as potential scientists, from kindergarten through graduate school and beyond. This nation's overall standard of living and quality of life depend on such efforts.

The leadership role of the United States in science and technology has been created and sustained by both home-grown and imported scientific talent. Today's increasing trend of importing scientific talent to meet our science needs illustrates that we have a questionable desire to adequately cultivate our own minority human resource. In light of the growing minority population in the US, it is imperative that underrepresented minorities help create the new economic opportunities that emerge from scientific discoveries. Encouraging scientific literacy and participation in the discovery process gives stepping stones to future scientific leaders.

Those who must supply the energy, talent, and knowledge to sustain us into the 21st century are already in the educational system. We must act quickly and deliberately to make a difference for them. We must develop comprehensive science education programs and more concerted efforts to encourage talented minorities to pursue careers in science and technology.

Historically, minorities have been underrepresented in scientific and technical disciplines. Often, they have not participated in programs critical to developing careers in science. Consequently, they are not prepared to meet our increased needs for a high-tech work force, and they are unlikely to benefit from new employment opportunities, professional advancements, and, ultimately, a higher quality of life.

The frontiers of science and technology are evolving at a dramatic pace, fueled largely by the information revolution, global competitiveness, and health and environmental concerns. Up to two-thirds of the productivity growth in the US since the Depression stems from technological advances, according to the Clinton administration. Not so, however, in minority communities, where careers in sports, entertainment, health, and the legal profession are the avenues of success and wealth.

Advances in science and technology are destined to drive global economic markets well into the 21st century. African Americans and other minorities must emerge as full participants so they, too, can experience and contribute to these exciting opportunities.

Education is obviously the key. But what are the realities when it comes to educating minority youngsters? These students have limited access to well-prepared teachers and other educational resources compared with peers supported by a stronger tax and resource base. About 30 percent of students in the public schools are minorities, yet fewer than 10 percent of the teachers are.

This lack of resources and effective role models adds to the declining performance of African-Americans in science and mathematics. From 1972 to 1989, dropout rates for US blacks were twice as high as those for whites, while for Hispanics the rate was three times higher than whites. Diminishing student performance seems to be interwoven with a declining interest in careers in science, engineering, and mathematics.

In the 1970s, efforts by federal agencies, foundations, the science and engineering industrial sectors, professional organizations, and colleges and universities began making some headway. From 1977 to 1989 there was a 20 percent jump in the number of bachelor's degree recipients in the natural sciences. At the same time, minorities saw a 97 percent increase in bachelor's degrees in engineering.

Yet at the doctoral level - where new knowledge and important scientific breakthroughs are most likely - development continued at a slow trickle. The number of minority PhD recipients in the physical sciences only increased from 71 in 1975 (out of 3,476 total) to 111 in 1990 (3,237 total).

Only 12 African Americans received PhDs in chemistry in 1990, according to National Research Council reports. No African Americans were awarded PhDs in several important sciences that year: applied mathematics; astronomy; atomic and molecular physics; analytical chemistry; geology; geophysics; civil, mechanical, nuclear, and industrial engineering; materials science; biophysics; neurosciences; molecular biology; and microbiology.

These figures paint a stark picture of the present and future for African Americans. They are not positioned with the necessary educational background to become the inventors, discoverers, and transmitters of new knowledge.

Because of this, they are likely to continue to be largely consumers of new science and technology. The financial gains, personal growth, and business opportunities likely to emerge from scientific discoveries and technological advances will not be within their grasp.

The pool of minority talent that could make a difference is dormant; over the years it hasn't been energized or nurtured. Overall, society hasn't been successful in attracting and sustaining minorities in science and engineering careers.

But what can be done? Some of the programs begun in the 1970s to address these problems have lost focus and support, while others have emerged as national models. The full impact of those successful models hasn't been realized, however. These programs still lack synergy and continuity. Links between such programs are missing. More important, links must be built to create a comprehensive curriculum that would bolster scientific learning from kindergarten through graduate school. We are still operating piecemeal.

Luther Williams, assistant director of the education and human resources directorate of the National Science Foundation, has made some pertinent recommendations. He urges that future programs be designed to fully meet the demands of the science and technology work force. This will ensure optimal links between the educational and economic systems. He suggests that all minority students should be offered a comprehensive curriculum, including science and education programs, which is not only intellectually challenging but is also adequately funded. And he calls for courses to be taught by competent teachers.

If we can't or simply won't address the need for more minority involvement in science and technology, an increasing segment of society will become the underutilized working poor, in contrast to a highly educated, perhaps elitist, few who may eventually control the economic and education future of the majority.

The American public must recognize and support the premise that an investment in science education will bring major returns in the social and economic growth of our society. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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