Major investment needed to steer minorities toward sciences

The federal government and the nation's universities should invest $150 million annually to double the number of minorities pursuing science and engineering degrees, says a report released from the National Academies.

The report came from a committee chaired by Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In his 18 years at UMBC, Hrabowski has garnered a national reputation for mentoring minority scientists.

"It's well-documented that the United States needs a strong science and technology workforce to maintain global leadership and competitiveness," said Hrabowski, presenting the report in Washington on Thursday. "The minds and talents of underrepresented minorities are a great, untapped resource that the nation can no longer afford to squander."

The report calls for a coordinated effort among the federal, state and local governments, K-12 school systems and universities.

The report calls on the federal government to sustain its stimulus-level funding of Head Start, to increase Title I funding for public schools, to offer incentives for math and science teachers in districts with large minority populations and to create 5,000 new college fellowships a year for minorities interested in science and technology careers.

"The hope is that we will see action by Congress," Hrabowski said in an interview Friday. "We need the nation to decide to invest substantially in educating these students."

State systems need to align their grade-school curricula with the science and math taught in early childhood programs such as Head Start, the report says. It also recommends that they introduce students to science and technology careers as early as pre-school.

Local systems should all provide science and technology magnet schools and encourage minority students to enter them, the report says. It also calls on them to provide one college counselor for every 250 students in middle and high school and to design specific programs for attracting minority students to science and technology.

Universities need to reward faculty members who help steer minorities into science and technology careers and to create more mentoring and peer support programs for such students, the report says.

It cites a number of programs that have successfully adopted this approach, including the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC.

"Our success can be attributed to the commitment of our faculty researchers in reaching students," Hrabowski said. "They're very supportive of the notion that they can be successful."

The report also cites Morgan State University as a leader in producing minority engineers.

The study was launched in 2008 at the request of U.S. senators, including Barbara Mikulski and Hillary Clinton, who expressed concerns about the underrepresentation of minorities in science and engineering. The report says underrepresented minority groups comprised 28.5 percent of the national population in 2006 but just 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering occupations.

The National Academies are a collection of nonprofits that provides research and policy advice on national issues of science, technology and health.

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