Minority Student Success with NOBCChE

In 2005, more than two-thirds of the American scientific workforce was composed of white males. But by 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the population. If the pipeline fails to produce qualified nonwhite scientists, we will, in effect, be competing against the rest of the world with one hand tied behind our backs.

This statement came from a superb L.A. Times op-ed in early 2010 by Irving R. Epstein is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of chemistry at Brandeis University. I’ve used this quote and article for the last two years at the international ScienceOnline science communicators meeting held annually here in North Carolina.

In his piece entitled, “The Science of Science Education,” Epstein argues why – and how – we can better educate and retain underrepresented students in the sciences.

In describing how he set up his HHMI-supported project, Epstein gave us some interesting background on why students from underrepresented backgrounds have tended to underperform in STEM coursework relative to other groups:

The most promising approach I came across was developed by Uri Treisman at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s. Treisman wanted to understand why, over a 10-year period, there was not a single year in which more than two black or Latino students at Berkeley received grades of B-minus or better in first-term calculus. He set up a study to follow 20 African American and 20 Chinese American students with comparable socioeconomic backgrounds. His findings defied the stereotypes.

Treisman demonstrated that several widely held assumptions — that black students were less motivated or less prepared or had less family support — could not explain their lower grades. His conclusion was that “the black students typically worked alone” while “the Chinese students learned from each other.”

Epstein goes on to say that he partnered with The Posse Foundation to create a HHMI program at Brandeis. Each year, ten African American students are recruited at the high school level to provide group activities and a college “boot camp” introduction that prepares them for the kind of rigor and collaborative efforts required to succeed. Epstein reported that in the 2009 cohort, all but one of the students passed introductory chemistry with six of them passing with honors.

These kind of collaborative, partnering activities are those that I find very important at my university, a historically-Black college/university (HBCU) whose student body is roughly 80% African American with other underrepresented groups who may be first-generation college students and/or from low-income backgrounds. In addition to helping these students take advantage of tutoring and encourage group learning, I also find it important for students to engage with professional societies where they may find mentors and make contacts outside the university.

In the May 9th issue of C&ENews, Dr. Lauren Wolf reported on her experiences at the 38th annual NOBCChE meeting held April 19-22 in Houston. NOBCChE is the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers. (Many thanks to our benevolent overlords at the ACS home office for making this article open-access!).

Lauren is the former laser chemist and current C&EN Associate Editor who CENtral Science readers will know from the Newscripts blog. She launches the article by following an Afro-Caribbean student, Tsehai A. J. Grell and noting that the organization is pronounced “no-buh-shay.”

Grell, a tall young woman with curly hair, a broad smile, and a lilting French Creole-based accent, has a bent for chemistry, something she developed under the guidance of a teacher in Dominica she says she “loved to death.” She’s now struggling to decide on one area of the central science, possibly physical chemistry, to pursue in graduate school. “There are so many things that you can do” here in the U.S., Grell said. “How do you choose just one?”

She hopes that attending this year’s NOBCChE meeting—her first—will help her figure it out. The conference, which offers attendees résumé writing, mock interview, and financial planning workshops as well as a career fair, is a desired destination for students. “All my friends at Morgan State went to NOBCChE last year,” Grell said. “They came back with all these stories, so I couldn’t wait for my opportunity.”

Specialty groups in the sciences are nothing new but they are often excellent first experiences for trainees to interact with the scientific community outside of their universities. Moreover, they provide evidence to the students that people who are just like them can succeed in a career path where they may be underrepresented relative to the general population.

NOBCChE is one of those organizations. Finishing Lauren’s article, I was left with a feeling of optimism that so many established chemists and chemical engineers took the time to participate at NOBCChE and engage with the undergraduates and pre-docs. A feeling of belonging and engagement is essential to success, not just for minority students but for all students.

Many thanks to Lauren Wolf for covering this meeting.

Reference: Wolf, L.K. (2011) Making Connections at NOBCChE. Chemical & Engineering News 89(19):42-43 (9 May 2011).

Author: David Kroll

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3 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    Thanks so much for the shout-out! This was my second year at NOBCChE, which is such a great meeting. Everyone there knows everyone else: It’s 50% family reunion and 50% intense career development opportunity. The students, all of them dressed so professionally, know why they’re there and try to make the most out of it. I’m always in awe of them–they seem so much more aware of their options than I did when I was at that stage. One of NOBCChE’s goals this year is attract more students from other minority groups, so I encourage everyone to check it out.
    Lauren

  2. Thanks for your insights, Lauren, both here and in the article. I’ve noticed similarly that other minority focused organizations such as SACNAS are increasingly open to all students/trainees from underrepresented groups, particularly since individuals also come from mixed backgrounds. The degree of mutual support and concern for the future have been among the factors that have impressed me with my minority colleagues.

    I hope to be able to make it to NOBCChE next year. Thanks again!

  3. David, thanks for this article. We hope you can join us next year. Lauren, we always enjoy having you with us. You are part of the NOBCChE family.