WASHINGTON—Funmi Ayeni, a junior at Morgan State University, wants to be a National Institutes of Health researcher and work on improving mental health care in underdeveloped countries in Africa.
Ayeni, a psychology major, is applying to graduate school, working on two cancer research projects and credits being a scholar in the university’s Student-Centered Entrepreneurship Development program as the means to achieving her goals.
In 2017, Ayeni will become part of the 6 percent of African-Americans who hold bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering or math. However, at 12 percent of the population, African-Americans are underrepresented in STEM fields, according to Department of Education statistics.
Those findings are echoed in those in the 2015 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, which shows little progress since 2000 in shrinking racial and gender disparities for interest and aptitude in STEM. Though the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees earned by black college students rose 60 percent from 2000 to 2014, it made up a smaller percentage of the overall number of bachelor’s degrees earned by black students in the same period.
But programs like that at Morgan State in Baltimore and another at the nearby University of Maryland have found ways to ramp up interest in STEM careers among black students – such as more research opportunities, aggressive recruiting and apprenticeships.
“There’s a moral responsibility we have to our future as a society,” Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell said Monday at a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine forum on education and technology. “We’re here today not just because of the challenge but because around the table these are the institutions that have begun to break the code.”
The Department of Education, the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the academies’ Board on Higher Education and Workforce brought together STEM experts as well as representatives from historically black colleges such as Howard University in Washington and Morgan State.
The U.S. has 105 historically black colleges and universities. While they comprise only 3 percent of colleges and universities nationally, they produce 27 percent of African-Americans with bachelor’s degrees in STEM, Department of Education officials say.
“We have models that work and today we’re going to dig into them to see why they work,” Mitchell said. “They can truly change the ground for diverse candidates in the STEM fields.”
Morgan State University’s ASCEND program is No. 1 in the U.S. in producing black electrical, civil and industrial engineers, and No. 3 in producing black engineers in all fields.
Morgan State President David Wilson says his school achieved its success through strong leadership, a belief that students can perform at the highest level, an undergraduate apprenticeship model and a highly trained faculty.
The university’s ASCEND program encourages and funds undergraduates’ original research proposals.
“We are now taking the best of that model and marrying it with an entrepreneurial approach,” Wilson says. “It’s working like a charm.”
As an ASCEND scholar, Ayeni attends seminars and workshops and has the opportunity to publish her research. The program also offers financial support and a monthly stipend to reduce the costs of college.
“I don’t have to keep a job, I’m able to focus solely on my academics and doing research that I love,” says Ayeni, 21. “I’ve recommended this program to everyone I know. You have so many opportunities within in your reach that you may not be aware of as a regular college student.”
The second-most successful program in graduating black students who go on to doctoral work in biological sciences is the University of Maryland—Baltimore County’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which uses early identification of minority high school students with the potential to excel in STEM courses along with financial aid, research opportunities and faculty mentoring to attract students to their program.
“It has become a point of pride for the institution,” says Brit Kirwan, chancellor emeritus and regents professor of mathematics at the University System of Maryland. “This is not a top-down mandate. Faculty, staff, students see this as a mark of distinction for the institution. It is one of the ways the institution identifies itself.”
Partnering with companies is another way the school works to recruit black students with STEM degrees. University of Maryland and Morgan State are among the universities that work with companies such as General Motors and Northrop Grumman. GM partners with universities’ diversity offices, as well as organizations that promote STEM diversity, such as the National Society of Black Engineers. Since 2011, the GM Foundation has awarded $16.6 million in grants through university and organization partnership programs that provide funding for secondary education curriculum in STEM, says Cherie Wilson, GM’s director of federal affairs.
The Obama administration is working as well to increase diversity in STEM fields before the end of President Barack Obama’s term: In January, the White House launched the Computer Science For All Initiative, which aims to expand access and instruction for all students in computer science, with a particular emphasis on increasing minority participation. The White House has proposed spending $4 billion in fiscal 2017 for the program.
Other priorities of the Obama administration include improving teaching in STEM fields, supporting access for students to STEM studies and addressing bias that prevents minorities from participating in STEM, says Knatokie Ford of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.