african american children science class

Earlier this month, many Black families were among the 5.8 million Americans who tuned in for the premiere of COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey, a new series hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium. Featuring science prominently and during primetime is certainly one way to engage broader audiences who may not typically tune in to, say, The Discovery Channel.  Popular like COSMOS that appeal to new and underserved audiences may be the answer to usher in the next generation of African-American innovators. Marlissa Hudson of Oakton, Virginia watched the program with her 10-year-old,  Hudson Eaton. “My son barely blinked the entire time, and it only doubled his desire to be an astrophysicist. He told me he's just so curious about the cosmos! He wants to discover the origins of life in our universe, as well as what was there before the Big Bang. This show is priceless!”

The positive reactions from African-American families is encouraging for those of us in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields who are passionate about seeing more of our folks doing this work. Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s position as the country's most recognizable scientist is also inspiring, but the question that inevitably haunts many Black parents is “How can I keep my child engaged in STEM," especially when their school's programs may be lacking.

COSMOS is a great start, but supporting children's interest in science by enrolling them in non-formal or out-of-classroom learning activities is critical. Here are a few tips for keeping them engaged with STEM:

1. Connect to after-school STEM programs happening at your child’s school or in your local community center. Classroom lessons, plus the increasing time dedicated to prepare for high stakes tests, rarely give curious students a chance to do the science and engineering activities that captivate their interests in these subjects. Academic extra-curricular activities such as Robotics Competition Teams, Science and Math Clubs, as well as Scouting Programs sponsored by faith and community civic organizations are ideal outlets for youth interested in STEM.  These programs and clubs host activities that reinforce classroom lessons, foster critical thinking, and allow students to interact with mentors and other science-engaged students.  Whether part of a group initiative or an independent project, students who engage in science and engineering activities outside of formal classroom time are often the ones who go on to successfully navigate a path to STEM later in life. 

2. Check out national professional organizations. The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) has created an amazing pre-college Initiative to engage African-American youth in STEM.  NSBE SEEK (Summer Engineering Experience for Kids) is a 3-week program for students in grades 3-8. The free camp, led by college science and engineering students, engages hundreds of students in fun learning activities in cities across the nation. 

3. Research what’s already happening in your region. Local non-profit institutions often host semi-annual regional science outreach events. For example Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link, Inc. (SEM Link) in Oakland, California, and Atlanta, Georgia, holds math and science career activities throughout the school year plus annual STEM Career Fairs. Moreover, SEM Link hosts an Experimental Design Academy to help prepare students for local science fair competitions. 

4. Go online and do an independent project. Citizen science offers countless independent and individual science engagement opportunities for children and families.  Citizen science refers to crowd sourced research projects involving professional scientists and amateur scientists working together to collect, organize, and analyze large data sets of information in STEM fields from astronomy to zoology. SciStarter is a searchable data base of research projects happening all over the world. Students can sign up to help catalog biological databases, identify constellations of stars, or collect ecological and atmospheric data and submit the information to university data bases; and so much more.

According to a 2011 US Census report less than 7% of the American science, technology and engineering workforce is comprised of African-Americans.  Part of the career disparity is rooted in the lower attainment of African-Americans earning science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees. According to a 2009 report from National Center for Education Statistics, African-Americans received 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs. The job growth potential is greatest in STEM-related careers, especially those related to computer sciences and data technologies.  STEM careers offer financial opportunities to security and economic parity to our communities and families.

“I think it's our responsibility to make ourselves as black scientists and engineers, available to facilitate exposure where possible. For African-American youth, STEM experiences are beneficial regardless of where one ends up,” says Stephani Page, Biochemistry and Biophysics Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill and creator of the Twitter hashtag #BlackandSTEM. I think it's our responsibility to make ourselves available to facilitate exposure - where possible I think it's our responsibility to make ourselves available to facilitate exposure - where possibly helping African-American families find the on-ramp to science, as well as community support of after-school science programs is one of the surest ways to open the doors to STEM opportunities for our youth.

Dr. Danielle N. Lee is a Biologist and Science Communicator who emphasizes science outreach opportunities to underserved and underrepresented groups. She was recently named as a White House Champion of Change for her work in promoting STEM Access and Diversity to African-American audiences. She is a member of the National Science & Technology News Service, a media literacy initiative to bring more science news to African-American audiences. You can follow her on Twitter at @DNLee5.