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Data and success stories reveal how to ensure that African American students thrive in the STEM classroom

Making Black Scientists: A Call to Action

Marybeth Gasman and Thai-Huy Nguyen
Harvard University Press
2019
256 pp.
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Building a diverse STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workforce is an enduring priority in the United States, but predominantly white institutions (PWIs) have been slow to correct the systematic exclusion of Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans from educational opportunities. In Making Black Scientists, Marybeth Gasman and Thai-Huy Nguyen examine African American access to STEM careers through stories and data that describe the successful experiences of faculty, staff, and students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Whereas PWIs have failed to make substantial progress in ensuring positive educational experiences for African Americans, HBCUs have been steadily “making black scientists” (and technologists, engineers, and mathematicians). HBCUs represent only 3% of postsecondary institutions but produce nearly a fifth of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans in engineering and nearly a third in mathematics and physical sciences, despite differences in size, resources, and student preparedness.

The book’s power lies in artfully sharing the stories of HBCU students, faculty, and administrators, inviting us into student lives, faculty minds, and institutional cultures. It is organized thematically, describing key overlapping and reinforcing characteristics that create environments supporting African American excellence in STEM. These passages are bookended by an introduction and first chapter that concisely capture the landscape of racial inequality in STEM education—a section worth reading slowly, especially for faculty who are not familiar with the history and context of HBCUs—and a final chapter that distills action items for PWIs to improve the experiences of African American STEM students.

Gasman and Nguyen argue that African American success in STEM begins with an institutional commitment to the education of black students. This notion, built into the mission of HBCUs, is in many ways precluded at PWIs through the history of segregation in U.S. education. The book details how HBCUs do not anxiously perseverate over math preparation, test scores, and other dubious meritocratic measures. Instead, faculty and administrators offer educational experiences tailored to students’ needs. This entails a variety of approaches, including making STEM socially relevant, recognizing students’ life circumstances, highlighting student strengths, beginning wherever K–12 preparation left off, celebrating black achievement in STEM, and believing in students even when they might not believe in themselves.

The authors foreground the sense of community at HBCUs, describing how peer collaboration facilitates student accountability and self-confidence. Emphasizing community success and intellectual generosity rather than individual achievement and competition contrasts strongly with traditional STEM education at PWIs.

HBCU faculty collaborate in putting students first and innovating supportive learning environments. Achieving excellence and needing help in learning are both normalized and expected from each student rather than viewed as aberrations. Faculty serve as caregivers to students, creating a sense of kinship and family that is rare in many other institutions of higher education.

Gasman and Nguyen argue that PWIs have much to learn from HBCUs’ decades of accomplishment in black students’ STEM education, a challenge to which I hope they will rise. But critical questions remain: How does one eradicate meritocratic thinking and elitist policies that maintain de facto segregation at PWIs? How does one radically upend reward structures and institutional budgets to truly put (traditionally marginalized) students first?

I do not doubt the transformative power of faculty showing up for African American students or of institutional reform to improve African American graduation rates in STEM at PWIs. But moving beyond incremental change requires striking at root causes such as racism and classism and confronting unjust relations of knowledge and power in a system that reliably reproduces inequality. This book provides a roadmap of actions within individual faculty members’ control and sustenance for students, faculty, and administrators engaging in the struggle for racial justice in STEM education.

It may be helpful to read the book remembering that HBCUs are both the product of a racist system and a challenge to that system. With this in mind, I could not help but wonder what more HBCUs and their students might accomplish if they were equitably resourced, and what the appropriate moral correction might be for PWIs that have benefited from decades of privilege.

About the author

The reviewer is the Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA.