“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
–President Barack Obama
2011 State of the Union address

During his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama declared this current period in America “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” With the median age of 36.8, 50 percent of Americans weren’t even born in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite into space. That event served as a wakeup call to the United States, that there were other countries that were smarter than we thought, and that if America wanted to remain ahead of the competition, education in technology was the key.

Less than a year after Sputnik was launched, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created NASA. America went on to win the so-called “Space Race” in 1969 with the first human landing on the moon.

Fast forward to 2011. Americans are again concerned about falling behind other nations in the technology race. India, China and Japan are investing heavily in education, research and new technologies. The president rallied us to “out-innovate, out-educate and outbuild the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.”

Obama repeatedly emphasized the importance of education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to the nation’s economic well-being.

Historically, Blacks have always been innovators in science, technology, and engineering, math and medicine. Early well-known African American leaders in science include George Washington Carver and Elijah McCoy.

Carver’s research developed 325 products from peanuts, 108 applications for sweet potatoes and 75 products from pecans, and more than 500 dyes and pigments from 28 different plants.

McCoy was best known for his first invention, a lubricator for steam engines, which was patented in 1872, and revolutionized the industrial machine industry, and for which the term, “the real McCoy” was coined. He established his own firm and was responsible for a total of 57 patents.

Locally, Los Angeles has its share of leaders in science and technology. Former laser systems specialist Hildreth “Hal” Walker, traveled throughout the United States and the world introducing advanced new laser technologies.

Walker played a historic role in the Apollo 11 mission, which successfully landed the first man on the moon. He operated a laser system that completed the first interplanetary laser experiments ever conducted. One of the major benefits to the world from these experiments is utilizing laser-ranging methods to accurately trace the movements of the Earth’s continental plates, thereby enabling scientists to gather data that can assist in the future of predicting the occurrence of major earthquakes.

The Smithsonian Museum of American History recognized Walker’s role in 1994 as part of an exhibit entitled, “Science in American Life.”

Walker, along with his wife, Bettye Davis Walker, Ph.D. are co-founders of the African-American Male Achievers Network Inc. (A-MAN) in Inglewood. The A-MAN Inc. mission is to utilize science and technology as a motivational tool and advance the educational achievement, intellectual and career development of African American students and other minority students.

A-MAN’s purpose is to increase the number of African American and other minority students who are excited about and enter the fields of science and technology.

In response to the president’s call for increased STEM education, A-MAN recently completed the purchase of a 28,000-square-foot facility for the purpose of expanding STEM education. When fully implemented, the A-MAN Inc. STEM International headquarters will provide K-12 educational programming for 2,400 students–twice its current capacity. The expansion is scheduled to take place over the next 18 months.

“This is good news for our community,” says Hal. “Where parents are asking and wondering, ‘What can our children do now to get themselves involved in the 21st century careers and work forces?’ A-Man has now taken a leadership role in putting programs in place.”

In the world of forensic anthropology, Clea Koff is world renowned. She is the founder of the Los Angeles-based Missing Persons Identification Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that offers free investigation services to the family and friends of missing persons in the United States.
In 1996 at the age of 23, she was selected by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal to join 15 other scientists on a four-year journey to Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in order to unearth physical evidence of war crimes.

The family of Mitrice Richardson sought Koff’s expertise in an effort to determine the young woman’s cause of death. Richardson’s remains were found in a remote area of Malibu Canyon in August 2010, 11 months after her arrest and release from the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff Station for not paying a restaurant bill.

As with science, African Americans also have a long and distinguished history in the field of medicine.

As a youngster in 1783, James Derham was owned by a number of doctors who taught him how to read and write, mix medicines, and serve and work with patients. He bought his freedom and began his own medical practice in New Orleans, becoming the first African American to practice medicine in the United States. However, he never received a medical degree.

Five years later, Dr. Derham’s paper on diphtheria was read before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of America’s foremost physicians at the time.

Almost two hundred years after Derham saved more yellow fever victims than any other physician before or during his time, neurosurgeon Ben Carson led a 70-member surgical team at Johns Hopkins in separating Siamese twins joined at the cranium (1987).

A decade later, internationally recognized neurosurgeon and scientist, Dr. Keith Black joined Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and was awarded the Ruth and Lawrence Harvey Chair in Neurosciences.

Dr. Mae Jemison was the first female astronaut to travel in space in NASA history. Early in her career, she interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

Dr. Jocelyn Elders was the first African American to be appointed as U.S. Surgeon General;
Dr. Charles Drew was famous for his pioneering work in blood preservation.

The list of significant contributions and “firsts” by African Americans in the fields of medicine, science, technology, engineering and math are far too numerous to name.

As impressive as the strides of Blacks who have made major milestones in the 20th and 21st century are, according to a recent nationwide National Science Foundation survey, the next generation of Blacks entering these fields is declining. While Blacks account for about 15 percent of the population between the ages of 20 and 24, only about 8 percent of science and engineering degrees are earned by them.

Milton Randle, director of Cal Poly Pomona’s Maximizing Engineering Potential (MEP) program, has seen a noticeable decrease in enrollment over the past two years. The program’s purpose is to increase the number and diversity of students who graduate in technical disciplines, including those from historically under-represented groups.

“We’ve have to work collaboratively with other organizations and reach students earlier. The National Society of Black Engineers has a pre-college initiative that is beginning to extend itself (into) K-12 in minority communities. We’re trying to make engineering a household word.”

Professor Sylvester James Gates Jr., who is a John S. Toll professor of physics at the University of Maryland and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), says the decrease of Blacks in the STEM areas is particularly alarming.

“Among African Americans, when you talk about STEM–science, technology, engineering and mathematics–I would say it’s little bit more than a slight decline; it’s a definite decrease. This is actually very worrisome. In medicine, on the other hand, I think the numbers–although not rapidly growing–continue to grow and more and more. African American young people seem to be going into that arena and making fair progress.

“It doesn’t seem to be showing up yet in the demographic of doctors, so that’s still a concern, when you look at the issue of medical health disparities. But in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, there’s definitely not a good story to tell. This is a consistent downturn. But the story hasn’t been good for at least 10 or 15 years, so this is not a great change.”

Professor Gates points out that there are no short-term solutions to the decline in young African Americans going into science and engineering careers.

“First of all, STEM fields are kind of peculiar in the sense that they are a little bit like saying ‘I want to be a musician.’ You know if you want to be a great musician, you sort of have to start playing an instrument early. That’s kind of how STEM fields work. If you really want people who are going to have an opportunity to pursue the field at its most complex level, then you have to have a well-defined way for them to get there. This is the so-called ‘pipeline’ problem,” notes Gates.

“The pipeline for STEM fields for African Americans is really, really something that we have work on as a community. The other thing is that part of this pipeline problem is simply the quality of education in these fields. I’m not sure most Americans understand how badly we, as a nation, do in this area.”

In September, PCAST presented a report to President Obama entitled, “To Prepare and Inspire.” This report outlined what the government could do to enable communities around the nation to improve the quality of education in STEM fields for young people. The report also pointed out that the solution cannot be found solely in the schools.

After school and community-based programs must step up to the plate to help solve this problem. Gates added, “In the African American community, I would also include the church, because in our community the church plays such an enormous role in the dynamic of the community. This is a very great challenge.”

Hal Walker says programs like A-MAN are preparing a future solution to the pipeline challenge. “Whether you’re going to be a baker or a brain surgeon, you’re going to want to have a STEM education background; that broad background. The work force and the technology of the future are going to require that diversity. When students come out of our K-12 programs, they’ll be ready and in position to attend universities in STEM education programs. In other words, we’re creating a pipeline that is critical to prepare the next generation seeking higher education and STEM-based career opportunities.”