Underrepresented Minorities In The Sciences Essay

Underrepresented Minorities In The Sciences Essay

A student’s high school experience has an impact on his or her future. Students that are labeled as underachievers, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics, are not encouraged to attend college. In fact, they’re expected to become incarcerated or welfare recipients. On January 8, 2002, former President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. It was developed because there were gaps in academic achievement along the lines of race, ethnicity, and household income. For those minority students that attend college, very few tend to major in the sciences.

“Mastering a field of science is a task difficult enough to challenge anyone” (Yount, vii). Forty years ago, it was almost impossible for African Americans to have a scientific career. Some black high schools did not offer chemistry classes. There were very few graduate programs in science at major universities that accepted or encouraged black students (Yount, 43). “More often than not, underrepresented minorities and women are relegated to the most trivial roles in this society” (Clemmons, 1). Instead of being thought of as scientists or engineers, they are thought of as criminals, welfare recipients, housekeepers, and cooks.-anything in a domestic capacity.

Americans have had different reactions to the achievements of black scientists. Before, black scientists were not given recognition for their accomplishments because of their race. “On the other hand, at times it has glorified the names of certain scientists seemingly far out of proportion to their achievements precisely because they are black” (Yount, x). For instance, Benjamin Banneker became famous because of his discoveries in math and astronomy. He was involved in the 1791 survey of present-day Washington, D.C.

George Washington Carver invented many products derived from peanuts, soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes; however, he did not patent or profit from many of his inventions. “If he had been white, he probably would have made significant contributions in mycology [the study of the plantlike living things called fungi] or hybridization [the crossbreeding of plants] and died in obscurity [unknown]” (Yount, x). Americans recognized him for his generosity and humbleness.

Many Hispanics have immigrated to the United States for political, educational, or economic reasons. For those that are scientists, “most said that their Hispanic backgrounds and knowledge of Spanish helped them in their careers” (Oleksy, vii). Latin contributions to science that have been overlooked in the past are now being recognized by Americans.

Historically, there were differences of opinion concerning the education of Blacks and improving their place in society. Booker T. Washington, head of the former Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, believed that blacks should focus on vocational rather than academic subjects, like carpentry, farming, and plumbing. “Providing blacks with advanced scientific training was a waste of time, he felt, since this training could not be used” (Yount, viii). On the other hand, W.E.B. DuBois believed that blacks should be given the best education possible. They should strive to be doctors, lawyers, and scientists.

These opposing viewpoints had powerful effects on the black scientists in the early 20th century. Some scientists, like Charles Drew and Daniel Williams, loved teaching at historically black universities and medical schools. By contrast, scientists like Ernest Everett Just, resented teaching at a black university because there wasn’t enough time to do research or money to purchase laboratory equipment. Still, there are scientists like Bert Fraser-Reid that are an exception to the rule. He was so interested in chemistry that he taught himself after buying a book called Teach Yourself Chemistry. Later, he decided to go to Canada to study chemistry at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in 1956. He chose to study in Canada “partly because he was concerned about violence against blacks in the United States” (Yount, 82).

After obtaining his Ph.D., Dr. Fraser-Reid worked in London and Canada before coming to the United States. Several universities wanted him to join their faculty. While he was at Duke University, he started a program that allowed three minority high school students and three minority university undergraduates to work with members of the chemistry faculty each summer.

“Blacks continue to lag behind Whites in math and reading proficiency, the percentage of students who graduate from high school and the percentage that complete college” (Chappell, 82). In 1998, 31 percent of Blacks, 28 percent of Hispanics, and 10 percent of Whites fell below the basic National Assessment of Educational Progress writing assessment achievement level. In 1997, 59 percent of Hispanics, 72 percent of Blacks, and 81 percent of Whites ages 18-24 completed the requirements for a high school diploma. Statistically, this involved gaps in income “because ethnic and racial minorities are disproportionately poor (Arriola, 175). The rising cost of college tuition and the lack of the availability of scholarships and grants make it more difficult.

The United States ranks twenty-eighth of forty countries in mathematics and only graduates 75 percent of its students compared to 95 percent in other countries (Darling-Hammond, 1). The higher achieving countries fund their schools equally, making sure that the neediest schools receive additional funding. They also better prepare their teachers by providing first-rate teacher education, mentoring, competitive salaries, and continuous professional development.

Last year, 52 percent of Black students attended schools that were 75 percent minority. Some call this “resegregation”. When public schools were legally segregated, black schools were deplorable, and student lacked basic supplies and textbooks. Some of the teachers that taught them had a lack of training. Unfortunately, the same thing is happening in some public schools now. This allows “teachers and other administrators to justify having low expectations for Black students” (Chappell, 82). Teachers generally have higher expectations at reputable schools.

Many Black students can excel academically, but some choose not to do so. “Black teenagers at certain stages of identity development might spurn academic success because doing well in school might be perceived by peers as trying to act White” (Arriola). In 1998, there were 1, 389 students enrolled at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School, which is all-Black. Only 79 students—67 girls, 12 boys— obtained a “B” average or better. Ballou was known as “the most troubled and violent school in the blighted southeast corner of Washington, D.C.” (Suskind, 1). The school’s dropout/transfer rate is 50 percent. Academics were a low priority. Honor students feared that they could be possible targets of violence. They were called “Nerd!”, “Geek!”, “Egghead!” and even “Whitey!” ( Suskind, 3). Males especially didn’t like being taunted.

“Academic success in high school specifically is important because dropping out of high school can alter the individual’s life course detrimentally” (Arriola, 176). High school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, earn less money, receive public assistance, and have children at a younger age. Research studies have found that there are seven “noncognitive variables” that are associated with academic achievement of students, particularly minorities. Those variables are a positive attitude, a realistic outlook, the ability to understand and deal with racism, motivation, a strong support system, strong leadership skills, and demonstrated community service (Arriola, 176). Those students with a strong support system tended to have higher standardized test scores; they are used to measure academic success.

Researchers conducted a study to examine factors that may contribute to the academic achievement of African-American high school students attending a health sciences academy. This type of school was designed to better prepare students for entry into the health professions. During their undergraduate years in college, students are usually Pre-Med, Biology, or Chemistry majors so that they can attend medical or dental school.

They predicted that (a) students with more community service involvement would have higher GPAs, (b) students with greater academic motivation will have higher GPAs, (c) students who perceive themselves as having greater social support will have higher GPAs, and (d) students who deal with racism by talking about it instead of suppressing their feelings will have higher GPAs (Arriola, 177).

Community service alone did not produce higher GPAs; however, students that performed community service and dealt with unfair treatment affected academic achievement in a positive way. Higher academic motivation was not a significant factor. “One possible reason for that finding is that the criteria for inclusion in the health sciences program include the requirements that the students show an interest in sciences and also have reasonably high GPAs” (Arriola, 179). Gender was not a factor in the study.

Many universities, like the University of California, Berkeley, faces challenges with diversity in its medical schools. “With the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the state’s population, it is crucial for the University to increase diversity of the medical profession within the state by increasing the diversity of the students graduating from its medical schools” (Barr, 1). The university may not use racial or ethnic preferences when accepting students, but it can invest resources in support of students from underrepresented minority groups who are accepted based on their personal and academic strengths. This shows that these students have the potential to succeed in an undergraduate premedical program required for admission to medical school.

Many people believe that minority students are only accepted into colleges because of affirmative action. Further, some professors advise their students, particularly Black females, that they will be hired solely because they are Black females. Their talents are completely overlooked. The fact is that white women mainly benefit from affirmative action policies (Clemmons, 3). There is a “stereotype threat”, which “can be defined as the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype” (Clemmons, 2). This also attributes to the perceived underachievement of African-American college students.

Many Americans view lower socioeconomic status as a disadvantage to being black. They believe that if a black person comes from a middle class home, he doesn’t suffer the disadvantages of race. However, “regardless of class, racial pressures depress the academic performance of African-American students” (Clemmons, 2). This is one of the reasons why many of them don’t pursue science and engineering degrees. You work so hard to earn your degree and enter into the workforce only to be disrespected.

“Research and funding concentrating on students of color in higher education institutions have recently remained at the forefront for foundations, scholars, and academic departments seeking to increase the representation of students of color in colleges and universities” (Aragon, 81). It has been found that African American, American Indian, and Latino students are more likely to attend community colleges. In 2002, the American Council on Education (ACE) found that students enrolled in community college were primarily the first generation in their family to attend college. Most likely, they would also be working part-time, which increases the likelihood of dropping out of college (Aragon, 83).

On the other hand, there are students that transfer from two-year colleges to four-year universities to complete their degrees. There is an increase in the number of minority students transferring to four-year, non-research-extensive universities. They performed just as well or sometimes better than the native students. However, “research-extensive universities struggle with recruiting and retaining students of color” (Aragon, 81). The problem is that more emphasis is put on community colleges than four-year universities in the transfer process. Most studies “only focus on the contributing factors employed by community colleges in the transfer function that may lead to the student’s success or failure” (Aragon, 85). Receiving schools have neglected their responsibility of recruiting minority students from community colleges. If these institutions played a bigger role, there would be an increase in graduation rates of minority students in research-extensive universities.

Professional schools and academic departments are the major figures in the recruitment process of community college transfer students. The School of Education at New York University (NYU) is taking steps to make the transfer process easier for students. Some ways are by offering scholarship assistance to those with financial need, minimizing credit loss following transfer, and providing guidance to students through their transition to NYU until their graduation (Aragon, 85). Thus, NYU worked with surrounding community colleges to establish the Community College Transfer Opportunity Program (CCTOP). “Data show that between 1990 and 1998 approximately 45 percent of approximately 550 students who transferred as a result of this program were students of color” (Aragon, 86). The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) urges collaboration between community colleges and four-year universities.

It has been shown that students are interested in a medical career in the beginning of their college years. However, students later lose interest in going to medical school. “Negative experience in science courses, principally chemistry, was the main factor contributing to student’s loss of interest” (Barr, 1). Some professors were difficult; sometimes the classes were too overwhelming for some students. In some cases, students dropped a course, or they had to repeat it due to an unsatisfactory grade. It is advantageous to complete a course only once since most medical schools expect “A’s” or “B’s” in core science courses. Generally, entrance into medical school is very competitive.

Unless the student’s major is chemistry, it is not the focus of study. Regardless of major, there is usually a mandatory class or two that students dislike. There are so many other facets to science besides chemistry. Some students opted to still major in science despite the dislike of chemistry because there are other science courses that were enjoyable. For example, Louis Walter Alvarez, a Hispanic-American Nobel Prize-winning physicist, had planned to major in organic chemistry when he enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1928. He changed his mind after taking “the mandatory chemistry laboratory study” (Oleksy, 3). He changed his major to physics in his junior year because he enjoyed a physics laboratory course that he took on light. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1932.

Recently, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a new report showing that efforts to boost minority participation in the sciences and engineering over the past ten years have been successful. From 2001 through 2008, the annual number of Ph.D.s awarded to underrepresented minorities in science and technical fields increased by 33.9%. In natural sciences and engineering, there was a 50% increase in the number of Ph.D.s awarded to minorities (Malcom, 1).

Sixty-six universities are participants in the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP). The program is “funded by the National Science Foundation to increase the number of underrepresented minority students —African Americans, Alaskan Natives, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Pacific Islanders” in obtaining graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) (Malcom, 1). They also better prepare these underrepresented minorities for faculty positions in academia.

These universities share resources and increase networking among each other. They recruit and mentor minority students in doctoral programs. The University of California, Berkley is one of these universities. The National Science Foundation (NSF) also collaborates with a variety of federal and state agencies and nonprofit organizations. These programs include Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP), Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Minority Ph.D. Program among others. The latter has provided scholarship support to over 900 minority Ph.D. students since its establishment in 1995. The Minority Access to Research Careers program, or the AUC-MARC, is a federal program created to channel more minority students into graduate programs. It helps them to prepare for graduate study, including pursuit of a Ph.D.

Before, this was not the case. Dr. Sonya Summerour Clemmons, the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego, felt that there was “a lack of a real commitment by universities to recruit faculty members of color in the fields of science and engineering” (Clemmons, 3). She also felt that the universities had a quota for the number of minority Ph.D.s that it produced. It was easy to get in, but not so easy to graduate. There are some dissertation advisors that are more critical solely because a student is a minority. If a minority Ph.D. is recruited to be a member of the faculty, he or she will become a “mentor” to the minority students in the program. That may not leave much time for research. Even though minorities successfully earn a Ph.D., they still have to prove themselves.

Some historically black colleges and universities participate in duel-degree engineering programs with other institutions such as Georgia Tech. The Atlanta University Center (AUC) consists of Clark Atlanta University, Spelman, Morehouse, and Morris Brown College Georgia Tech “graduates more minority engineers than most other engineering schools because of its participation in the dual-degree engineering program” (Clemmons, 2). This allows students to earn undergraduate degrees in both engineering and another science subject, like physics.

The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the Twenty-First Century (the Glenn Commission) is addressing issues related to the national shortage of qualified math and science teachers. It is insuring that an adequate number of qualified teachers enter and stay in teaching. The quality of math and science teachings needs to be improved at all grade levels. In addition, the “Commission recommends that all states adopt and enact legislation requiring school districts to collect achievement data on students disaggregated by socioeconomic status, limited English proficiency, disability status, race/ethnicity, and sex, and should hold districts, school boards, and schools accountable for the success of all subgroups in meeting state achievement standards” (CAWMSET, 12). To address the financial aid issue, the Commission recommends that the federal government enact legislation to increase funding of the Pell Grant Program for science, engineering, and technology students.

Parents need to take responsibility for their children’s success. If their children want to major in science, they should encourage them to do so. Some children show an interest in science at an early age. Schools should take notice of that. There are some elementary schools that set aside time for students to invite their parents to talk to their entire class about their occupations. When children are at that stage of their lives, they are often asked what they want to do when they grow up. Most may say a fireman, a doctor, or even a teacher. When they become teenagers, they may aspire to be athletes and entertainers, particularly minority youths.

It is easy for teenagers to get caught up in materialistic dreams that are often reflected in music videos, movies, and sports. They advocate making fast money; you can earn six figures without a college degree. However, these careers are only available to a small number of people and are often short-lived. Some athletes earn college degrees as a back-up plan; if they are injured, they may no longer be needed by their team.

Many students have an “Undecided” major when they begin their freshman year. Teachers should inspire students. Students should feel comfortable talking to their teachers, not be afraid of them. It shouldn’t be just about earning a paycheck. For example, an extraordinary high school science teacher will encourage a student to major in science. Science is universal and worldwide. “A student learns more by walking down the corridor of a first-rate lab than from someone teaching, because he learns how people do research” (Yount, 91).

Students tend to mimic people they admire and respect. A student will not want to pursue a career in science if he dislikes his science teacher. Guidance counselors can assist in helping students choose a major. There are tests, like Myers-Brigg, that can determine the careers that are best based on their personality types. They can also arrange for colleges to visit schools, perhaps those that are recruiting potential science majors. Students can also educate themselves on science careers. The library offers many valuable materials such as college preparation, college entrance exams, and various career options. It would also be helpful if a student can talk to an adult that works in the science field. It would give them a feel for real-world expectations.

There are a “number of African-American students who have been steered away from challenging careers because of poor counseling” (Kunjufu, 72). It is a counselor’s job to give proper advice about the types of courses needed to fulfill the qualifications of the desired career. Older adolescents can serve as role models and counselors to their young peers. They can advise them on study habits, balancing academics with extracurricular activities, and reinforcement of the positive. The more positive feedback that a student receives, the more he can replace negative peer pressure.

President Obama’s “Zero to Five” early childhood education plan places key emphasis on care and education for infants, which, he believes, is essential for children to be ready to enter kindergarten” (Chappell, 82). Presently, there are some families that use flash cards to teach their babies to read. Some mothers play music while their babies are in the womb.

President Obama’s other goals are to expand the Head Start program, create new programs to recruit, train, and reward teachers, expand after-school opportunities, and create new intervention strategies to address the school dropout crisis. Creation of the new American Opportunity Tax Credit would pay $4,000 of a student’s college education in exchange for one hundred hours of community service (Chappell, 82). As it was previously mentioned, the rising cost of college tuition makes it difficult for low-income families to afford.

President Obama has also pledged to revamp the No Child Left Behind Act that was championed by former President George W. Bush. “No Child Left Behind pushes schools to boost the performance of low-achieving students, a group that typically includes minority kids, English-language learners and kids with disabilities” (Quaid, 1). Elementary and middle school students have made positive strides since the law’s passage. Unfortunately, the progress of high school students has not changed. The dropout rate is still one in four children (Quaid, 2).

Minority families that can afford it can send their children to private schools. For those that cannot afford to either send their children to private school or live in neighborhoods with good public schools. In private school, some classes are more hands-on instead of being textbook-based. This helps students develop test-taking skills.

As it has previously been stated, students with strong support systems and community ties usually have higher GPAs. Students have positive attitudes about life when they have family and friends that love and support them. Parents and community volunteers can give instructional support to teachers in their school. Churches in the community are a great resource for volunteers, and they can provide mentorship programs for students at a particular school.

There have been many advances in science over the years. “Nevertheless, as Bertram Fraser-Reid points out, the scientific world of today is interracial and international” (Yount, xi). Dr. Fraser-Reid made many contributions in the field of carbohydrates. He didn’t experience poor treatment like many black scientists did; the majority of his time was spent in Canada and London. Blacks don’t experience discrimination in those places like they would in the United States. Many Blacks that have traveled internationally usually don’t complain about racial discrimination.

Those that work in the science field come to realize that it is a very small community. You can have co-workers in your present company that know your previous co-workers from another company. In many private chemical companies and laboratories, many of the employees are minorities. A majority of them are from foreign countries. Even in the 21st century, minorities still experience some level of discrimination at the workplace, mainly in private industry. About four in ten blacks do not feel that any real progress has been made since the 1960s. In their opinion, things really have not changed. They are just more subtle. Corporate America is very cutthroat. It’s about knowing how “to play the game”. On the other hand, minorities that are scientists for the federal government rarely complain about discrimination. They also tend to work in the government until they retire.

“What is needed in order to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in science, engineering, and technological fields is a push for a new and concrete plan of action, with mandatory implementation guidelines, adopted at the national level which focuses on transitioning women and underrepresented minorities into positions of power” (Clemmons, 3). Perhaps the Obama administration will make it one of their top priorities among other things to improve the country’s situation.


  1. Aragon, Steven R. and Mario Rios Perez. Increasing Retention and Success of Students of Color at Research-Expensive Universities. New Directions for Student Services, no. 114, Summer 2006, p. 81-89.

  2. Arriola, Kimberly R. Jacob and Cecil L. Powell. Relationship Between Psychosocial Factors and Academic Achievement Among African American Students. The Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 96, No. 3, January/February 2003, p. 175-180.

  3. Barr, Donald A. and John Matsui. The “Turning Point for Minority Pre-Meds: The Effect of Early Undergraduate Experience in the Sciences on Aspirations to Enter Medical School of Minority Students at UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Research & Occasional Paper Series: CSHE.20.08, November 2008, p. 1-9.

  4. Chappell, Kevin. (March 2009) Obama and the Black Agenda: Five Issues the New President Must Tackle. Ebony. 64(5), p. 78-84.

  5. Clemmons, Sonya Summerour. Underrepresented Minorities in Science: Races to Run, Hurdles to Clear. Retrieved May 8, 2009 from http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org.

  6. Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET). Land of Plenty: Diversity as America’s Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering, and Technology. September 2000, p. 12-13.

  7. Darling-Hammond, Linda. Evaluating ‘No Child Left Behind’. Retrieved May 11, 2009 from http://www.thenation.com.

  8. Kunjufu, Jawanza. (1988). To Be Popular or Smart: The Black Peer Group. Chicago: African American Images.

  9. Malcom, Shirley. Underrepresented Minorities Benefit from Program to Boost Participation in Science-Related Studies. Retrieved May 8, 2009 from http://www.aaas.org.

  10. Oleksy, Walter. American Profiles: Hispanic-American Scientists. (1998). New York: Facts on File, Inc.

  11. Suskind, Ron. (1998). A Hope in the Unseen. New York: Broadway Books.

  12. Yount, Lisa. American Profiles: Black Scientists. (1991). New York: Facts on File, Inc.

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