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The Road To Success: NSBE flips the script on lagging recruitment and retention

Written by Chris Levister on 23 June 2011.

(NNPA) – In 1971, during the civil rights movement, Arthur J. Bond a student leader at Purdue University led students to demand that the engineering and science powerhouse open up its engineering schools to more Blacks and women.  Fredrick L. Hovde, Purdue’s president at the time, was sympathetic to the cause.  He appointed Bond to a steering committee, which organized the first national effort to increase minority participation in engineering.

The effort would grow into a national organization that is now the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).  With more than 35,000 members, NSBE is the largest student-governed organization in the country.

So it was no surprise when the NSBE chapter at UC Riverside fell short of money for airfare and hotels to take 11 students to the NSBE national convention in St. Louis, MO. last March, that Bourns School of Engineering (BCOE) stood ready to help pave the way.

“We needed to raise $4,000.  Despite months of solicitation and fundraising we came up short,” said chapter president, Christopher G. Webb.  “Without Dean Reza Abbaschian and the BCOE’s help (financial, physical, personal) the trip would not have been possible.”

“He understands the positive impact the convention has on NSBE members,” said Webb.  “He knows there is a constant need to maintain a diverse and well informed engineering pipeline.”

At the convention middle, high school, and college students learned about leadership skills and career development.  Others displayed science projects based on the likes of a high tech ‘mouse trap’ car to venomous snakes from Africa.  At a nearby exhibit on metal alloys a Shell Oil Company exhibitor challenged 9-year-old Raimond Livaudais, a Ugandan immigrant: ‘At room temperature, what is the only metal that is in liquid form.’

“Do you want me to give you the answer in French, Yoruba, English or all of the above,” the boy asked.  The exhibitor looked puzzled.  Livaudais paused and answered ‘Mercury’…The exhibitor congratulated the boy and handed him and a bright colored computer mouse for his correct answer.

“We have to show young students that Blacks along with whites helped to build and shape this country through engineering, and that it’s an important and exciting field to be in,” said NSBE Advisor and UCR Professor of Bioengineering, Dr. Victor Rodgers.

Letia Solomon, NSBE’s Region 6’s Zone Chair says, “I was lucky enough to have great teachers and parents who inspired me to pursue engineering at a young age.  Some students avoid math and science because they think it’s too hard and that it’s a boring field.  We have to create and promote programs that demonstrate otherwise.”

The annual convention is the premier event for NSBE which encompasses members, multi-national corporations, and exhibitors from around the world.

This year’s theme, “Engineering the Gateway to Success,” symbolized the organization’s mission to provide members with a pathway to continue to strive for success.

Webb, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, says NSBE’s most lofty and attainable objective is creating a culturally responsible engineering workforce and positively impacting the community.  “We have a huge obligation to put our best efforts forward in answering the call to create a footprint for our youth.”

He said with the dwindling number of Black students pursuing the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, it is imperative to reach youth at a young age to show them not only how exciting engineering and science can be, but that a college education is possible.

UCR helps foster interest in engineering through its summer programs designed to develop middle and high school students’ analytical skills and help them prepare for college-level courses.

“We are excited about our prospects for recruiting and graduating more engineers from disadvantaged communities,” said Dr. Abbaschian, “but we recognize that it is only a small part of what must be done to rebuild the national engineering workforce.  We need other academic institutions, corporations, governments, and non-profits to band together and contribute to the effort,” he said.

With good reason because after years of robust recruitment and retention in the nation’s engineering schools the number of Black students pursuing an engineering degree continues to stagger, making up about five to six percent of national enrollment for the last five years.

Statistics provided by BCOE Professional Development Officer, Jun Wang. indicate UC Riverside has a total of 1828 undergraduate engineering students (Spring’11).

Of that amount 3.99 percent (73) are African/African American.  Figures show out of 448 graduate engineering students a total of 2.4 percent (11) are African/African American.

This is a troubling national trend, said Calvin Phelps, National Society of Black Engineer’s chair. “Graduation rates for Black engineers have remained almost stationary for the past 10 years in spite of a rising population,” he said.  “We have to work hard to reverse this trend.

“It may seem like a daunting challenge, but we must keep in mind the historic importance of the end goal,” said Rodgers.

“For as long as people have used tools we have depended on engineers to figure out new ways to explore, improve, and build our world.  We cannot afford to let engineering become anything less than a critical, treasured part of our workforce,” said Rodgers.

On May 6th Rodgers escorted a group of BCOE students to the annual Los Angeles Council of Black Professional Engineers 32nd annual awards and scholarship event themed “Educating Our Youth for the Change.”

From family science fairs on and off campus to MESA Day volunteering NSBE is committed “to increasing the number of culturally responsible Black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community. “That’s our motto,” says Webb. “And I’m stickin’ with it.”

Middle school students demonstrate a ‘mouse trap car’ during a competition at the 37th Annual National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) national convention held in St. Louis last March.