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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 February 21 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Identifying Potential, Nurturing Growth

Photo by Kevin W. Fowler, Lansing Community College

University of Michigan Solar Car Team members Santosh Kumar, center, and Rachel Kramer, right, show a model of Momentum, the team's 2005 vehicle, to Lisa Webb Sharpe, senior vice president for finance and administration at Lansing Community College. The exhibit was part of a kickoff event for the Michigan-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, held at Lansing Community College.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Identifying Potential,
Nurturing Growth

Colleges Strive To Supply Minority Grads in STEM Fields

By Paul Bradley

Everyone seems to agree that the country’s educational system is producing far too few graduates skilled in science, technology, engineering and math.

In speech after speech, from the State of the Union to a December visit to a community college campus, President Barack Obama has underscored the necessity to improve its educational outcomes in the STEM fields or risk losing the race for new jobs and a robust economic future to overseas competitors.

“Our generation’s Sputnik moment is now,” the president said during a visit in December to Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N. C.

“In 1957, just before this college opened, the Soviet Union beat us into space by launching a satellite known as Sputnik,” Obama said. “And that was a wake-up call that caused the United States to boost our investment in innovation and education — particularly in math and science. And as a result, once we put our minds to it, once we got focused, once we got unified, not only did we surpass the Soviets, we developed new American technologies, industries and jobs.

“So 50 years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment. If the recession has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot go back to an economy that’s driven by too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans, paper profits that are built on financial speculation. We’ve got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth.”

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But where will the new graduates in this STEM fields come from? If demographic and population tends are any guide, large numbers must come from the ranks of underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students — precisely the population served by the nation’s community colleges.

Across the country, community colleges have been responding to the need. Forsyth Tech is home to the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce and last year announced an alliance with the Washington-based Manufacturing Institute to jointly develop a highly-skilled and educated biotech and pharmaceutical production workforce.

“The biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and medical device industries are among the fastest-growing sectors in our manufacturing economy,” Emily DeRocco, president of The Manufacturing Institute, said in a statement. “The continued growth of U.S. manufacturing in these global markets requires a highly-skilled technical workforce. This alliance will develop and implement replicable solutions to the nation’s need for a technical workforce in support of manufacturing.”

Michigan Initiative

In Michigan, nine community colleges recently joined with the four of the state’s flagship universities to increase the number of underrepresented minorities graduating in the STEM fields, an effort being funded by a $700,000, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

The effort is Phase II of the Michigan-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (MI-LSAMP), which was established in 2005 by the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Western Michigan University and Wayne State University. According to the NSF, “this activity was launched to help diversify the workforce to include greater numbers of under-represented minorities (URM) to reflect the population and enable students and faculty to collaborate in diverse groups, a requirement for effective work in the 21st century.”

During the first phase of the project, investigators looked at various tools for improving the recruitment, retention and graduation of MI-LSAMP students, including mentoring through multicultural services offices and the establishment of a local support network for STEM students. Those tools will be enhanced and expanded during Phase II of the initiative.

The nine community colleges in Phase II — Grand Rapids Community College, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Kellogg Community College, Lake Michigan College, Lansing Community College, Macomb Community College, Muskegon Community College, Washtenaw Community College and Wayne County Community College District — were selected based on their commitment to diversity, proximity to the 4-year colleges, demographics and prior collaborations with four-year institutions.

The goal is of the program is to double the number of underrepresented minority students earning baccalaureate degrees in STEM fields by 2015, document the findings and expand the reach of the program.

LCC President Brent Knight said the college is a natural place to turn for policy makers looking to boost the number of minority students pursuing careers in the STEM fields. The school has a history of promoting science education; last summer, the college received a $30,000 grant from the NSF to fund faculty fellowships and student internships with a local startup nanotechnology company.

According to the College Board, community colleges enroll 55 percent of undergraduate Hispanic students, 47 percent of African Americans, 47 percent of Asians and 57 percent of all Native Americans.

The People’s College

The NSF reports that 50 percent of African Americans, 55 percent of Latinos and 64 percent of American Indians who hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees in science or engineering had attended a community college.

“We are the people’s college,” Knight said. “This program really celebrates the fact that community colleges enroll large numbers of underrepresented minorities. We’re going to be able to take advantage of the research capabilities
that are available at the flagship universities.”

Knight added that there are tangible reasons that Michigan needs to increase the number of college graduates with science and engineering backgrounds. Though battered by the decline of the auto industry, the state is rich in engineering talent and is showing signs of revival and attracting high tech industries.

The state’s advanced battery industry, for example, is growing fast and has the potential to create thousands of new jobs. But job seekers will need engineering degrees and experience for more technical jobs or a manufacturing or skilled trades background for production work, according to the Detroit Free Press. Growth in the industry is nearly assured with higher fuel economy requirements and higher gas prices.

In East Lansing, the U.S. Department of Energy selected Michigan State as the site for the coveted $600 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University, a haven for nuclear physics research. The project is expected to bring $1 billion of economic activity into the state.

Developing the talent that will do the engineering and scientific work will require an aggressive outreach to minority populations.

“Community colleges play a key role in helping students increase their competencies in science, technology, engineering and math, and to encourage them to transfer to universities to pursue degrees in these subjects,” Knight said. “STEM education is a top priority at Lansing Community College.”

According to a 2010 report by the National Academies of Science, “The United States stands at a crossroads — a national effort to strengthen science and engineering must also include a strategy for ensuring that we draw on the minds and talents of all Americans, including minorities who are underrepresented in science and engineering and currently embody a vastly underused resource and a lost opportunity for meeting our nation’s technology needs.”

“The community college,” the report adds, “with its diverse student population is an integral player in advancing minority participation in STEM.”

According to the report, the underrepresentation of minorities in the STEM fields is a problem that is acute and growing. Even as the STEM field workforce grows rapidly — with more than 5 million jobs and many more anticipated in coming decades — minority participation is lagging.

African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans account for 34 percent of the nation’s population aged 18 to 34, yet earn only 12 percent of undergraduate degrees in engineering. The share of engineering degrees among these ethnic groups declines as the degree level increases: they earn 12 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 7 percent of master’s degrees and 3 percent of doctorates, according to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.

Those numbers stem from an underproduction of minorities in the STEM fields at all levels of education, said the National Academies of Science report.

“In 2007, underrepresented minorities made up 38.8 percent of K-12 enrollment, 26.2 percent of undergraduate enrollment, and 17.7 percent of those earning science and engineering bachelor’s degrees. In graduate school, underrepresented minorities compromise 17.7 percent of overall enrollment, but are awarded just 14.6 percent of S&E degrees and a miniscule 5.4 percent of S&E doctorates,” the report said.

To improve those numbers, Knight said, will take a concerted effort at all levels of education — creating an interest in science and education among minority students at an early age and nurturing it over the years.

“I think we now have a national consensus that we can and should do better,” he said. “But we all have to work at it.”

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Q: What is your college doing to increase minority participation in the STEM fields?
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