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Fewer Blacks Earning Degrees
By Alex Nixon, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Black Americans are earning fewer of the engineering bachelor's degrees awarded by universities each year.
The trend started in 2000 after two decades of steady gains by blacks to enter the engineering field. Industry officials have noticed and are working to reverse the decline.
"I think we dropped the ball as black engineers," said Carl Mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, which today opens its annual conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. "I think we have our eyes on the prize now."
The Alexandria, Va.-based society with student chapters at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and hundreds of other universities around the county is expected to attract about 10,000 professional engineers, engineering students and others to the five-day conference. Its last conference in Pittsburgh was in 2006.
Attracting minorities, in general, to engineering is essential to maintaining America's position as a leader in technology innovation, said C. Fred Higgs III, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at CMU.
"If you have a homogenous set of individuals at the table, you're automatically limiting your possible solutions," Higgs said. "For us to keep the jobs here, you need innovation. And for innovation to work well, you need a diversity of ideas."
There is an under-representation of blacks in engineering compared to their percentage of the nation's work force. Blacks represent about 5 percent of the engineering work force, but account for 12 percent of total workers, according to the National Action Council on Minorities in Engineering, a White Plains, N.Y., organization.
Since 2007, the National Society of Black Engineers has taken a two-pronged approach to increasing the number of blacks earning engineering degrees, Mack said.
The group offers summer programs for students in third through eighth grades that are priming the pipeline of future engineers, he said. The program has expanded from Washington, in its first year, to Columbus, Ohio; Oakland and San Diego; and New Orleans.
By getting more black students interested in engineering at an early age, the hope is to have more attend college who plan to major in engineering, Mack said.
Enrolling in college, however, is only half the battle, he said.
Although about 10,000 blacks step onto college campuses every year with the intent to declare as engineering majors, only about 3,000 make it to graduation to obtain an engineering degree.
"Engineering is a tough discipline to begin with," Mack said.
He said that many students, regardless of race, drop out of engineering programs. But more can be done to help black students stick with it.
"We're trying to get these students to create collaborative learning environments where they can work and study together," he said.
That's the goal of efforts under way in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, which encourages students to work together and rely on each other, said Alaine Allen, director of the school's Engineering Career Access Program.
"We do a lot to develop community," Allen said.
Higgs said CMU's junior class has the largest number of blacks in at least a decade.
Robert Agbede, CEO of Chester Engineers Inc. and a member of a board examining diversity in Pitt's Swanson, said the engineering school awards 7 percent of its engineering degrees to blacks. Although higher than it used to be, it's still shy of the school's goal of a 10 percent rate, said Agbede, who will receive the society's Golden Torch Award for Entrepreneur of the Year at this year's conference.
"We're not where we should be, but we know where we used to be," he said.
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