Courtesy of Dr. Washington and NCAR

Black History Month: STEM Innovators Inspire the Next Generation

Science and technology fields are becoming more diverse -- we discuss with the trailblazing National Medal of Science Laureates, Dr. Warren Washington and Dr. Sylvester James Gates.

It’s not often that something seemingly as insignificant as spending a day at the movie theater can set the stage for the next 60 years of your life.

But Sylvester James Gates –– now a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a trailblazing African American physicist –– says that’s just what happened to him when his mother took him to see the 1950s sci-fi flick “Space Waves” when he was just 4 years old.

“This movie, for whatever reason, sparked my interest in space travel,” Gates says. “And what I got from the movie was there was this thing called science that helped you do that. It basically set [the course for] my professional life, although I didn't know that's what it had done at the time.”

Images from that movie remained bound to his memory for the next several decades. Now, more than 60 years after he first saw “Space Waves” as a boy, Gates is one of the foremost experts in the fields of supersymmetry and string theory.

But he says it was a segmented series of pivotal moments and encouragement from mentors that cemented his interest in becoming a scientist –– a support network that many young African American students lacked 60 years ago, and are still searching for today.

Early on, Gates’s father took notice of his son’s interest in rockets and space travel and bought him a series of books about adventures in space by Willy Ley at age 8 –– a turning point for Gates. Another catalyst came during his first physics class as a high school junior. Two weeks into the class, Gates says his physics teacher showed him “the only real magic” he’s ever seen by demonstrating you can make predictions with mathematical equations.

“I recognized very early on that math was a game,” Gates says. “I was astounded that this element of the imagination was able to predict things in the world around us. At that point, I knew it wasn't all science, but it was physics I wanted to do.”

But thousands of students even today lack the strong mentorship and encouragement that Gates had throughout his educational career. The shortage of relatable role models is commonly cited as a reason diversity in the sciences has been lagging. Students don’t see people “like them” as scientists, researchers, physicists, and engineers –– so they think it isn’t possible for them.

Dr. Gates enjoying a laugh with President Barack Obama

The percentage of science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) degrees and certificates awarded to different races and ethnicities has generally held steady across the board for African American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native students. In 2008-09, African American students received 9.3 percent of the STEM degrees and certificates conferred, and in 2012-13, 9.4 percent of all STEM degrees and certificates were conferred to African American students, according to the Department of Education.

Part of the stagnation could be a result of the higher attrition rates among African American students who set out pursuing STEM degrees in college. Data from the Department of Education show that of those who began in 2003-04 as STEM bachelor’s degree students, about 20 percent overall left without a degree, and about 28 percent switched to a non-STEM major by 2009. But those numbers were much higher for minority students, specifically African Americans. By 2009, more than 29 percent of African American students pursuing STEM degrees left school without a degree, and 36 percent switched to a non-STEM major.

Others have suggested that African American students may be directed toward majors that lead to lower paying occupations, such as education, social work, and the arts, while they’re underrepresented in the highest-paying and fastest-growing majors, including STEM majors. Some of that lopsided distribution may be due to personal choice, but a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce suggests it’s also because African American students are more likely to attend open-access institutions with a more limited choice of majors.

Increasingly, federal agencies and industry leaders are looking to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to lead the way in attracting, educating, and graduating more African American STEM majors.

HBCUs have “an inviting culture” that “excites and mentors students,” said Grant Warner of Howard University, during an event discussing the importance of HBCUs in STEM diversity this week.

Though they represent just a fraction of the nation’s colleges and universities, HBCUs produce more than one-quarter of the African American students who earn STEM degrees, said Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell.

“I hope we continue to be a society where we can honestly admit who we are as a nation, and continue to make progress to make things better,” Gates says.

He says it gives him hope that his career has taken the trajectory that it has. Growing up on military bases that had integrated schools before most of the rest of the country, Gates was shielded from many years of prejudice and discrimination he would have otherwise faced. Still, he felt insecure and unsure about applying to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until his father intervened. He went on to become the first person at MIT to write a dissertation on supersymmetry. And in 2013, he became the first African American physicist elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Warren Washington also describes his journey into the world of physics as somewhat of a series of accidents –– but a path through which he surpassed what was expected of him. As a student pursuing a degree in physics at Oregon State University in the mid-1950s, he was already out of place, as very few minority students were enrolled as science majors.

Dr. Washington working with a student.

He went on to become the second African American in his field to earn a Ph.D., and the second African American to be awarded the National Medal of Science. He’s now a renowned expert in atmospheric sciences and climate change –– he was a pioneering developer of groundbreaking computer models that help in forecasting the weather and the Earth’s climate.

“We still have a long way to go, but I think in the sciences, we're getting closer to the 50 percent balance,” Washington says. “Now, when I go to a conference I see a lot more minorities in the population that I see. I think we're making progress.”

But along the way, Washington says it was the mentors he had starting from his younger days that made the difference.

Gates and Washington both say they make a point of speaking to students today, hoping they might spark some interest in science, or give them the push they need to overcome insecurities. Perhaps people like them –– determined and curious scientists who beat the odds –– are the role models that have been missing.

“I just feel it's important to give back a lot of what I received in my career,” Washington says. “I know that there are obstacles and difficulties and in some cases prejudice, but I feel like it's decreasing over the present versus in the distant past.”