With a paucity of minority women in science, technology and math (STEM) careers, a Prince George’s-based business has partnered with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and HBCUs to retain minority women in those careers. GPRA Strategic Management and the NSF held a conclave in June to build community awareness about the issue and are committed to broadening minority representation STEM careers.

The movement was a long time coming, according to Kelly Mack, Ph.D., program officer with the NSF’s ADVANCE program. She said the NSF wants to create more diversity in science-related fields.

“We had the goal of bringing together women of color to look at the issues that were germane to them,” Mack said. “We also wanted to expand the professional network of women of color, particularly those from historically Black institutions.”

The program has a number of unique features and like other initiatives focusing on minority women in STEM careers, has little to no federal funding. ADVANCE implements feedback from the community it serves and the women directing the program have lived the HBCU experience, making them more attuned to the societal pressures minority women face, Mack said.

Those pressures underscore the program’s importance. The percentage of African Americans and Latinos wanting to major in STEM careers at the onset of their college careers is greater than that of Whites, but that number isn’t reflected in graduation rates or workforce statistics.

“Something happens between the freshman year and graduating with a baccalaureate degree,” said Mack. “We know that something happens again in the transition from the baccalaureate degree to graduate school and other transition points that the NSF is interested in.”

The discrepancy develops because too few mentors are available for women of color, according to Claudia Rankins, Ph.D., program officer of NSF’s HBCU UP Program. She hopes female faculty members at HBCUs will help address the issue.

“The few women faculty members we have now will of course serve as role models for students,” Rankins said. “In that way, we are hoping that they have an influence on undergraduate and graduate students.”

The program, in its initial stages, is focused on retention and not attraction, although its leaders acknowledge that’s a step they’re interested in taking very soon.

“We do recognize that we will, at some point, want to expand our scope to include strategies that would attract undergraduate women and graduate women into the academy,” Mack said.

For GPRA, however, the program is not just going to stop here. Carmen Rivera, president of GPRA, said that the organization’s large minority population allows them a unique opportunity to engage public school children.

“My personal passion in this is the fact that I have three daughters that are pursuing STEM disciplines or are in the STEM academy in college,” Rivera said. “The youngest one actually gave us some ideas on reaching back-going back to the primary levels and secondary levels.”

 

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO