According to the National Science Foundation, there were only 6 doctorates conferred in 2008 to individuals who identified as Black or African American in the physics sub-fields of acoustics/optics/photonics (NSF groups the three). I was surprised to know that there were 5 other individuals who studied and overcame like I did – however optics and acoustics are much more established (read: recognizable) fields than photonics. I'm proud to be an African-American. I am proud to have earned a terminal degree. I am proud to be one of six. As much I want to be proud of the future that I wish to build for my family – I fear for it.
Yesterday I completed my "Intern for a Day" STEM mini-camp with a renewed sense of pause and alarm with others in my field when it comes with career aspirations of youth of color. When I was thinking about how I would share these feelings, I didn't want to convey the feeling that the sky was falling – because it has already landed on us.
I asked 20 youth (predominantly male) what they wanted to be when they group up – everyone invariably was going pro. I asked for “Plan Bs” and got answers such as “find a better physical trainer” or “I'm not going to get hurt” to my personal favorite “I'm going to start my own league.” While it is naive to expect 9 year-olds to have a lucid or coherent10-year plan, the fact that the 15 year-olds could not comprehend the fact that there was a better chance of them not even making a Division 1 college football roster than making it collected nothing but blank (and I mean BLANK) stares unsettled me.
The theme for today's camp was exposure. The kids got to play with everything from digital calipers to infra-red thermometers. All in the hopes that this experience would stick with them. When I was a kid, my father took me to Tuskegee University to learn about the work of George Washington Carver. I had to keep a memento of the visit so my dad got me a peanut that I could presumably plant and grow into some more peanuts. Long story short – I over-watered it and it molded but the memory will last forever.
Far beyond the token February references to Martin Luther King, our kids need role models. Our future needs examples of tenable stature. Yes, there will be another LeBron amongst the multitude but what will the multitude strive to be? Without examples, they will be lost. Without realistic goals we will face a generation of young men and women who naively put all of their eggs in a basket that has a hole in it.
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