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HBCU_Students_615x400From the stage of the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at the second-annual Platform Summit, held October 24-26, 2014 on the campus of Morehouse College, President John Silvanus Wilson pitched his school as a leading force in the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known by the acronym “STEM.” As he lauded STEM-related endeavors at Morehouse (informing the crowd that Morehouse currently has over 800 STEM majors), he committed the historically black, all-male college to delivering market-ready graduates, ready and able to break into the booming but diversity-challenged tech industry.

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“We are strongly considering requiring coding in two of our three divisions, and maybe across the board. That’s something that will give you a straight path into the innovation economy, or at least be conversant in it, no matter what your major is. On my watch as president, we’re going to make this an epicenter—a STEM powerhouse. It is time for innovation in higher education.”

As former executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and a former administrator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wilson’s announcement may stem from the disheartening statistics on minority participation in STEM careers after college, or what’s known as today’s “pipeline problem,” which many now look to HBCUs to solve.

By 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. economy is projected to add almost 47 million jobs, with careers related to computer systems design expected to grow by 45% from 2008 levels. The same study says the U.S. could be three million workers short, because not enough citizens will qualify for these jobs due to lack of proper education.

Economic data from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology says a million additional STEM graduates are needed over the next decade to fill this economic demand, particularly as STEM-based jobs are expected to grow 17% in the next 10 years, compared to 10% overall job growth. Yet in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported just 19% of African-Americans ages 25-29 had Bachelor’s degrees, and a specific shortage of graduates exists in STEM-related disciplines.

Dr. Calvin Lowe, dean of Hampton University’s School of Science, says while STEM is all the rage in today’s economic discussion, it’s not for everyone. “Sometimes I think we’re driven by market forces,” he says, “so people will say ‘STEM is a great field; we should try to steer students to that if we can.’ But a lot of students are not interested in STEM. You have to be good at science and engineering. At Hampton, we’re identifying those students with interest that are willing to engage because they love it.”

Hampton was recently awarded a $3.5 million grant by the U.S. Department of Education, for increasing access and affordability to STEM studies for low-income students. The money will be spent on faculty development and construction of a math emporium, among other endeavors. Hampton has also created a new interdisciplinary research and education program called NanoHU, combining the efforts of the Biological Sciences, Computer Science, Chemistry, Engineering, Mathematics, Marine & Environmental Science, and Physics departments, with a Nanoscience minor available to all undergraduate students.

More than a dozen other HBCUs have notable STEM programs, including Electronics and Engineering Technology programs at Southern University, Computer and Information Systems Engineering at Johnson C. Smith, Electronic and Computer Technology at Norfolk State, and Computer Aided Drafting and Design at Mississippi Valley State. Florida A&M University lists five B.S degrees in its collaborative Engineering program partnership with Florida State University, and six Science and Technology majors. It can also claim bragging rights to having influenced the career of alumnus John W. Thompson, Chairman of Microsoft Corporation.

Back at Platform Summit, Morehouse alumnus Paul Q. Judge, an information security expert named one of the top 100 young innovators in the world by MIT Technology Review magazine, has taken the stage, wearing a polished Navy blue suit and maroon designer sneakers. After declaring, “We’re gonna change the world right here,” he speaks about the inefficiency of talent and the requirement of hard work and focus, which he says helped him earn a B.S. in Computer Science from Morehouse, and his Ph.D and M.S. in Network Security from Georgia Tech.

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Now a wealthy tech entrepreneur and philanthropist, Judge goes on to talk about having conviction before looking for validation, sacrificing a social life (which he admits to having recovered since becoming a millionaire), and the similar nature of having a big vision and swinging for a figurative homerun. Still, he’s not so encapsulated in the tech bubble that he can’t pepper this speech with a Jay-Z lyric: “I’m different / I can’t base what I’m gon’ be off of what everybody isn’t.”

This is perhaps the missing link—finding ways for youth to relate to success in STEM as they have with success in the streets. Both have the potential to generate respectable income, but one is more likely to lead to negative choices and consequences, while the other will be crucial to an entire generation’s chances for achievement in a changing world.

“HBCUs have traditionally excelled at creating graduates in natural sciences, but today there is a gap in minorities in computer sciences,” Judge says. “HBCUs like Morehouse and Spelman are the right place to focus on increasing diversity in technology.” He’s right, but with his own ability to recognize the relatability of rap music to minority youth, he may be inadvertently making a broader point about attracting STEM students to HBCUs.

As the Department of Education’s report, STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields, says, “Students’ experiences or perceptions of institution and workplace context/climate may be related to STEM attrition as well. Such factors include inadequate academic advising, career counseling, and institution support; feelings of isolation in STEM fields because too few peers pursue STEM degrees and too few role models and mentors are available (mainly pertinent to females and underrepresented minorities).”

Whatever the solution, the obligation to improve is not restricted to human resources departments of Silicon Valley. It is shared by our HBCUs, who say they are ready for the innovation challenge of sparking the next great minds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and the entire community, all of whom must work together to plant strong roots.

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