Why Black Students Struggle With Science

Janelle Richards, The Grio, March 24, 2011

Black undergrads are struggling in science. It’s a myth that they don’t like the subject, or just aren’t interested.

In fact, in their freshman year of college, black and Hispanic students have the same degrees of interest in science careers as their white peers, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

But black and Hispanic students are less likely than white and Asian students to major in or obtain a doctoral degree in science career fields, a study from the commission found.

In 2000, black students in science and engineering fields received about 35,000 bachelor’s degrees. In 2009, the number had gradually increased to about 45,000, compared to about 540,000 recipients from all races and ethnicities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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Black students struggle for different reasons; some say they feel isolated in the classroom at universities, get left behind with the coursework, or don’t have a strong connection with their professors.

Jayson Stone, 22, entered University of Maryland, College Park as a computer engineering major in the fall of 2006.

“I did engineering for two years, but I kind of didn’t like it,” Stone said. “I decided I was better suited for business aspirations I also had, so I switched to economics.”

Stone was valedictorian of his Baltimore high school; he was involved on Maryland’s college campus and describes himself as an extrovert. Math was his favorite subject since he was young, but his engineering courses in his freshman year of college shocked him.

“There was a realization for me,” said Stone. “As I looked around at my classmates, I realized I’m not like anybody else. I literally felt like the only thing we had in common was our coursework . . . after class, we weren’t going to do the same things.”

Stone says the subject matter was interesting, but learning it wasn’t. The classes were lecture-only and there was a lack of connection with the professors who were teaching.

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“I definitely had access to on-campus tools to improve my grades while I was an engineering major. But the business field is just more upbeat, the economy major is still lecture style but it’s slightly more interactive,” said Stone.

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Struggling in classes, falling behind and possibly risking their future success may be the result of what scholars in the UCCR report call academic mismatch.

Academic mismatch is when a student is not matched properly with the other students in his or her class. For example, their credentials are above or below the median of their peers. Mismatch is a problem, because a student will either not be challenged or the material will be taught too quickly, leaving the student to fall behind in the classroom.

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Experts note that some schools are successfully matching their students to STEM programs–historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“With only 20 percent of total African-American enrollment, these schools produce 40 percent of the African-American students graduating with natural science degrees according to the National Science Foundation. These students frequently go on to earn Ph.D’s from mainstream universities” (UCCR).

Academic mismatch happens less frequently at HBCUs because there are more students who are above the average in the classroom.

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The solutions are vast. The UCCR’s list of recommendations include recruiting better teachers in public schools, having the universities create more mentoring programs and hiring more minority professors at mainstream institutions.

Another suggestion was to have university admissions or high school guidance counselors tell the students that their credentials are below the average of their peers, so they are aware of the possible impact.

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  • Jack Parsons, CA

    Basically, its not that they can’t learn. They just don’t want to.

    No. It’s because they can’t learn, they do not have the ability to grasp anything above the most rudimentary concepts, let alone such an esoteric subject as physics.

    How many real world cases are there of physicists with IQs under 140?

    Average black IQ, as I’m sure you’re aware, is ~ 80- 85. Not enough to study physics or any other hard science for that matter.

  • ChemE

    The following link is about black mathematicians, and while mathematicians are not scientists, strictly speaking, there is a strong correlation between mathematical ability and scientific ability. Obviously, some blacks will succeed in math and science, even if the percentages have been lower than for other races, and those who do succeed should be recognized. Wouldn’t it be better to have blacks aspire to worthy occupations in math and science than to drug dealing, basketball, or rap music? Sure, not many of them are cut out for it, but frankly not many whites or Asians are, either. Now, if we could just get rid of affirmative action, so we could have confidence that they succeeded on their merits…..

    http://goo.gl/JCxj2