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Growing interest in STEM [Commentary]

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The dearth of women and certain minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields represents a huge problem within this country and is a crisis often repeated in the news today. These stories often provide the same problem and, more often than not, suggest the same solution: that the education system must improve to better provide STEM skills to minorities before college.

I am not in disagreement with this view; however, as an African American child growing up in Detroit, I developed a love and skill for science more from programs within the community rather than those within the school system. Until high school, my education did not have an emphasis on STEM, and it was up to my parents to find ways for me to develop the skills necessary to be successful. The community programs I attended allowed me to see other minority engineers, to realize that I too could be an engineer, and to learn from their experiences to be successful in engineering. One such program, the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (dapcep.org), exposed me to various engineering fields and offered me access to computer, biology and pre-engineering courses. I went on to receive a bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering from Prairie View A&M University (a Historically Black College and University) and a master's degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Florida. Today, I'm a biomedical engineer working for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

A child often chooses a profession based on who influences him or her growing up. While changing the education system is necessary, some attention should also be placed on encouraging those in the community, specifically other underrepresented professionals in STEM fields, to give back by influencing others like them to pursue STEM fields and succeed. Among those underrepresented in STEM degree programs are those who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.

It seems that many minorities do not give back to their communities to help develop the next generation pursue STEM fields, or that many minority kids are turned away from STEM fields because they do not believe it is possible to be successful in these fields. If our society wants to see more minorities in STEM fields then we as a whole have to contribute and not put the entire burden on the education system to train the next generation of minorities in STEM fields.

There are plenty of ways for the community to get involved in helping to increase the number of minorities in STEM fields. One can help tutor kids in subject areas that are important for success in STEM, such as algebra, calculus or chemistry. Another way is to do what I am doing: talking to minority students interested in STEM fields, sharing my experiences and providing tips on how to be successful in the field. The situation that there are few minorities in STEM fields is a huge problem, but it is a problem that can be solved if everyone contributes.

Kareem S. Burney is public speaker and engineer who lives in Laurel. His email address is ksburney@hotmail.com.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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