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It was estimated by the United States Department of Labor Statistics in 2019, that close to 10,000 jobs were available in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Careers in STEM, while lucrative, are rarely afforded to people of color. African Americans make up 11 percent of the total U.S. workforce and only nine percent of STEM workers, making them one of the most underrepresented demographics in the field. Even less than its total in the industry, only six percent of physical science jobs are held by members of the Black community. Pew Research suggests 67 percent of all STEM jobs employ white and Asians, men specifically.
Though small in number, Black men are present in STEM careers and are making themselves known. Demetrious Parker is a medical technologist and Microbiologist at ENDO Pharmaceuticals and Clarity Labs. With an early love for science, a career in the field was always the natural next step.
“I’ve always been interested in science. I wanted to understand the world around us. How were things created? How we are able to breathe, walk and talk. All of this was figured out through science,” says Parker.
Despite interest in science or math, Black students, males in particular, are rarely exposed to those career paths. Inner city schools often face issues with funding, not allowing for programs to help expand STEM practice. For these students, never seeing themselves reflected is a stumbling block.
“I believe there is a lack of representation of Black men in STEM fields because there is a lack of enthusiasm to push us into those majors. Seeing someone that you can identify with who’s successful in a career makes you interested in that career,” says Parker. “Since there are not many Black scientists, Black students do not see themselves represented [and] therefore do not see themselves successful in that career path.”
Education stands as another barrier Black men face in entering STEM fields. Although graduation rates have spiked for African Americans resulting in 88 percent of Blacks holding a high school diploma, the path to a career in STEM continues to be rocky. For the 2017-2018 academic year, African American students only accounted for seven percent of the STEM degrees awarded.
“In the beginning of my education in science I did not have a lot of friends that had the same interest as me. I felt that there was not an emphasis on STEM education in the schools I went to. I am an introverted person so it was difficult for me to make friends with those who did take courses with me,” says Parker. “I didn’t meet many teachers that I could easily relate with to help me through my learning process. Sometimes I was the only Black male in a class and that added a feeling of pressure and intimidation. Am I good enough to do well in this class?”
To help counteract similar educational experiences for Black male students, teachers with an interest in STEM are pivotal. Originally from New Orleans, Calvin Nellum has been teaching science for six years. Working as a Physics and STEM teacher at Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, the educator also heads the school’s ninth grade class. Studying physics at Norfolk State University, the path was clear.
“I went to an historically Black college and they told me I could become a physicist and I became one,” says Nellum.
In classrooms populated by white students, STEM subjects are widely taught. For Black students, lack of funding, resources and ability create an environment where they are unable to see a future in these fields. Teaching how science relates to Black culture is one way to make science relevant.
“If you think about science, it is an all-white, male-dominated field. When you’re studying physics, all of the equations were made by white men, so there’s not a lot of culture in it and therefore, it is a disconnect,” says Nellum. “However, if you go back to Africa, Ghana, you’ll find that in their hair, in their clothing, in their architecture, it’s mathematics in so many things.”
Increasing the number of African American men and women in STEM fields is paramount. Creating excitement around science and its origination may help to foster a new love for the subject among not only students, but adults as well.
“We need to update science and make STEM more culturally relevant,” says Nellum. There is culture in science, but we just have to teach it. We have to bring power to it. You’ll see that science came from Africa.”
As the push for the racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion continues, raising the number of Black professionals in science, technology, engineering and math will take a targeted dedication to exposing Black students to those careers. Of the top STEM careers, African Americans have the highest number in healthcare.