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STEAM Education creates a better future for Black youth

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

By Ateya Ball-Lacy

Black genius is all around us. It is inescapable. We see it in our neighborhoods. We see it in our schools. We see it in our churches. Black genius is sitting at the dinner table in plain sight.

You know those shows you like to binge watch and those GIFS we all can’t live without? We wouldn’t have them without the pioneering work of a Black woman named, Lisa Gelobter.

With her own personal flavor of Black girl magic and a degree in computer science from Brown University, Gelobter has completely changed the way information and entertainment are produced and consumed around the world.

You can also thank a Black man by the name of Mark E. Dean for being able to watch GIFs and videos in color. In addition to leading the team that designed IBM’s first personal computer, Dean created the first color computer monitor. With a degree in engineering from the University of Tennessee, Dean took the digital age from black and white to full color.

And did you know that before Bill Gates, Africa had Philip Emeagwali? Originally from Nigeria, Emeagwali moved to the United States where he obtained a B.A. degree from the University of Oregon and earned two Master’s degrees from schools in Washington, D.C. While this Black genius is known as the “Bill Gates of Africa,” it wasn’t Gates who developed the world’s first supercomputer – it was Emeagwali.

Black genius is not just now guiding us into the future of technology – it has been the future for a while.

So, it’s no surprise that the next great tech hub in the United States is being built in an area with one of the largest concentrations of Black communities and Black talent in the nation.

Amazon should recognize this as it begins to build its HQ2 in Crystal City, Virginia, just a river jump away from the nation’s capital.

Washington, D.C. is the “East Coast” answer to the “West Coast” Silicon Valley. We’ve watched D.C. steadily emerge into a well-known incubator of start-ups. From federally funded IT and defense projects to major innovation sector titans like Amazon who are pitching tents throughout the region: D.C., Maryland and Virginia (or “#DMV” as it’s affectionately known) has evolved into a region also defined by tech giant HQs in Northern Virginia to the biotechnology laboratories extending from Montgomery County to Baltimore.

This should sound like great news for Black folks in the DMV area, a region that is nearly 30 percent Black in population composition. Washington, D.C. itself is just barely majority Black at 48 percent of the city-wide population and neighboring Prince George’s County (Maryland’s second largest) is nearly three quarters Black. Baltimore, Maryland is also a majority African-American city. And as the region’s technology corridor grows, so do parallel efforts from school systems and area universities (some of the top in the world) to produce more graduates with “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees.

Yet, the entire National Capital region still suffers from high Black unemployment rates and low wages.

What could easily solve this problem? Obviously, the burgeoning tech industry in the region. Still, for a number of reasons, the tech industry hasn’t yet received the message that there is a deep well of Black digital genius ready and waiting to take on these roles.

Let me take a minute to boast Howard University, my Alma Mater. Howard University is an innovative leader in STEM fields. Howard is a top producer of undergraduate African American students who eventually earn a Ph.D. in STEM-oriented subjects. Let that sink in!

As D.C.-area WTOP News recently reported, “Information Technology (IT) professionals can write their own ticket right now, with a nagging shortage of talent restricting U.S. information technology job growth despite high demand.”

According to the WTOP report, Mark Roberts, CEO of TechServe Alliance, blames the country’s inability to fill IT jobs on a lack of talent-supply in STEM fields. He is quoted as saying, “Despite robust demand in many IT skill sets, we simply do not have enough qualified IT professionals.”

Really? Something’s not adding up. Especially when Amazon will need 50,000 more of those professionals.

If there is high unemployment in, for example, D.C.’s Black community – where the Black jobless rate, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Center, is nearly five times the national rate at 14 percent – then that should naturally match high demand for IT employees. Why isn’t Black talent being tapped to cross this bridge?

Complaints of a “shortage” suggest that while the area is flooded with Black folks looking for employment opportunities, they don’t have the proper training required to access those opportunities. In other words, the tech corridor has an education pipeline problem.

In a U.S. News ranking of the best STEM high schools in the United States, Maryland boasted 9 of them. Still, these schools aren’t opening doors for Black students as much as they could. Of the 13,761 students afforded the opportunity to attend one of these nine schools, only 1,218 are Black. Maryland’s Black population is nearly 35 percent, including a massive presence of African and Caribbean migrants. But the Black population of the top STEM schools in Maryland is less than 9 percent.

There’s your pipeline problem.

To access positions in STEM fields through the National Capital region, “talent” must be formally trained and certified. This usually comes from accredited colleges and universities. If there is a lack of trained professionals available in STEM fields, it would follow that there was a lack of people interested in being trained in those fields.

But a closer look at institutions – such as the University of Maryland, for example – proves that there is an abundance of interest in advanced STEM degrees. In fact, there is so much interest the university has employed questionable gatekeeping methods on their graduate programs to ensure that people are actively fenced out.

According to the University, “Certain majors are very popular and require a limit on the number of students they can accommodate and are designated Limited Enrollment Programs (LEP). Students in an LEP major must successfully complete a specific set of courses, or ‘gateway’ requirements by the semester in which they earn 45 credits.” Computer Science and Engineering are both LEP programs.

That is why it’s now, more than ever, crucial for regional Black communities to develop creative ways to circumvent the clogged tech sector pipeline. Especially with Amazon’s HQ2 on the way. While encouraging industries, policymakers and academic institutions to recognize the diverse talent and potential employment pool they’re overlooking, we also need to mold and strengthen our own community organizations, religious institutions and schools (from K-12 to regional HBCUs) to fill these voids left open by systemic ignorance.

There is no shortage – only a lack of will and vision. The gateway is blocking Black talent access into places like the DMV corridor. There isn’t a gap between talent and the tech industry – there is a fence. And it’s time we stop it from keeping Black genius out.

Ateya Ball-Lacy is founder/executive director of Hood Smart: The UrbanSTEMulus Project, a dynamic DC-based program that promotes increased STEAM education for Black youth in the region.

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