This is the last in a four-part series of articles about black and African American Howard County leaders in celebration of Black History Month.
When Dwight Carr was growing up, his father, a teacher in District of Columbia Public Schools, would work on automobiles in his spare time. Outside the family home, Carr’s dad would have his truck parked, the bed filled with tires.
Carr remembers being embarrassed at the time by the large and noticeable truck, but now it’s a fond memory of his father, who died in 2003.
Carr often recites the anecdote about his dad and those tires. His dad used to joke that if he went back to school he would get a “master’s in being an auto mechanic.”
“Well, I was uninformed. I actually would go back and get a degree in engineering,” his dad had said.
Today, Carr, a county resident, works as the STEM outreach program manager at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel. He connects students of color and women with science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs that could ultimately bring more diversity to the field.
For Carr, there was some exposure along the way that brought him to the field of engineering, something his dad didn’t have, and it’s that kind of discovery he wants to ensure all kids of color and women have.
“He had no clue that these careers were out there for him and the same for me,” Carr said of his father. “I didn’t know it because I didn’t know a lot of engineers.”
Carr, 46, said black engineers weren’t prevalent in his community.
“You kind of grow up to be what you know and what you see,” he said.
‘Stumbled upon engineering’
Studying biology at Howard University in Washington in the late 1990s, Carr — who initially planned to go to medical school — realized over his four years that his passion wasn’t in fixing people, but in making things to help people.
“I would say I stumbled upon engineering,” he said.
Right out of college with a biology degree, Carr began working at Gene Logic Inc., a biotech company in Gaithersburg, that eventually paid for him to get a master’s in engineering from Johns Hopkins, bringing him one step closer to his goal.
He was surprised at the diversity of the staff at Gene Logic and had a similar reaction when he came to APL in 2003.
“I would say it was more diverse than I expected, but in leadership there wasn’t a lot of diversity,” Carr said of the Applied Physics Lab, a not-for-profit research center that provides research and engineering services to the government.
During his coming up in the STEM world, Carr described the state of diversity as somewhere between not being the only one and hoping for a more diverse staff.
“In order for us to come up with the best solutions, we need diversity of thought,” he said. “We need people to bring their whole selves to APL; that means your whole self in terms of your culture, your gender identity, your ethnicity, your race, so that you can bring your experience, your knowledge, to help us solve these really hard problems.”
Today, Carr runs a team of five people who oversee programs across the state to bring more kids from underrepresented backgrounds into STEM through all sorts of avenues.
He said he’s striving to create a world in which no kid can say they’ve never met an engineer.
“I spend a lot of time exploring ideas that people here at [APL] have of how to reach kids,” Carr said. “I spend a lot of time in the community in an advisory capacity.”
Carr’s team works with local school districts and at the state level to explain what the workforce needs are.
“Ultimately the school system is producing folks that we're going to need for our future workforce,” he said.
The state of STEM today
According to the Pew Research Center, STEM employment has grown 79% in the U.S. since 1990.
A closer look at the data shows why Carr’s recruitment work is crucial to diversifying the STEM workforce, he said.
Across most STEM fields, black and Hispanic/Latino people are underrepresented, according to 2018 data from Pew. Of the engineering workforce in the U.S., 5% are black and 8% are Hispanic/Latino.
Carr, who identifies as African American, sees a problem with those numbers.
“We want thoughtful, game-changing solutions, and we don’t get that if we don’t have a diverse group of people working on a problem,” he said.
According to Pew, white people are overrepresented among STEM workers relative to their share in the total workforce. Black and Hispanic/Latino workers continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce; 16% of the U.S. workforce is composed of Hispanic/Latino people but they are only 7% of all STEM workers, while black people make up 11% of the U.S. workforce but represent 9% of STEM workers.
Carr believes the key to making progress with these numbers is exposing kids to STEM, particularly those with access gaps.
“Exposure is huge. Many people won’t go into a career if they don’t know it exists,” he said. “It’s common sense, right? If I don’t know about it, how am I going to pursue it?”
Minimizing information gaps in communities across the state is one way Carr is trying to bring more kids of color and women into STEM fields.
“What I try to think about is what we’re designing; is what we’re implementing going to reach everybody? Is it especially going to reach those kids who are in a marginalized part of society who won’t really get this information? How will we make sure we get it to them?” he said.
“Every day I’m trying to find the little Dwight.”
Carr runs four major programs through APL’s STEM Program Management Office: MESA, Girl Power, STEM Academy and ASPIRE.
All four target kids of a specific age bracket, anywhere from elementary school to high school seniors, who are often underrepresented in STEM fields.
The largest of the four is the Maryland MESA program, originally founded through APL in 1978. MESA, which is a national program, serves more than 2,000 students in the state every year at 149 schools across eight counties.
The program is designed as a club that can meet before, during or after school that works on state and national challenges that revolve around STEM.
“[MESA] is happening every day during the school year, after school, across the state,” Carr said. “We really try to focus on getting young women and Hispanics and African American students in STEM.”
Carr, along with MESA program specialist Jason Cartwright, oversees the implementation of the program across the state.
“Fundamentally it’s important for us to have STEM programs with an emphasis on diversity,” said Cartwright, who is white. “There’s been a lot of barriers, particularly for students of color, so MESA’s goal is to help remove those barriers.”
The pair look for schools with high populations of students of color and women, and have intentionally created easy access points. By scheduling their programs at times when transportation is easier for parents and making the programs affordable, they hope that will draw more students in.
“We don’t exclude anyone who wants to participate, but we do try to make sure [the schools] understand we’re really trying to target Hispanic, African American and female students,” Carr said.
Clarissa Evans, executive director of curriculum programs for the Howard County Public School System before she retired, has twin daughters who went through the MESA program in Howard County.
Evans’ daughters, Eboni Fotang and Alisa Joseph, live in Howard County and now both work as industrial engineers.
“I credit MESA with sparking their interest [in engineering] at Wilde Lake Middle School,” Evans said.
“When you look at the statistics and look at how women and people of color are underrepresented in these fields, the program is fantastic in that it gives kids experiences. It helps them to see how they can take their interests and turn it into a career.”
When Fotang was in the eighth grade, her science teacher at Wilde Lake Middle pitched her the MESA program.
“I knew in fifth grade I wanted to be an engineer. I was excited about the opportunity to learn more about engineering and do engineering projects [when I heard about MESA],” Fotang said.
“Living in Howard County and then being in a group of people who were interested in engineering and looked like me — being there was just different for me and exciting. Usually in my classes there was no one who looked like me.”
Today, Fotang lives in North Laurel with her twin 12-year-old daughters.
“Even now many times in 2020 I’m typically the only female and only African American at the table,” she said. “Hopefully in the next couple of years there’ll be more diverse people at the table.”
On Black History Month
Carr said he’s had it easy compared with the previous generation of black engineers.
“When I think of those folks and what they had to endure to be heard, be respected, especially in a field that’s considered very intellectual, it’s a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “I’ve never really had the same level of trying to prove myself, I think, as [the previous generation of black engineers] had.”
He has, however, faced his own challenges along the way.
“I will tell you, being black in this environment does present a different set of challenges,” Carr said. “I have to be more strategic about what I say and when I say it because people filter what I’m saying based on my skin.”
Carr remembers when code-switching was a part of his everyday life.
“Anytime I meet someone for the first time and I’m trying to talk to them about something that is perceived that you need intelligence to talk about, I’ve got to break through that initial filter that they have, so that they understand, ‘OK he’s kind of smart, OK he understands; he’s educating me right now,’ ” he said.
Code-switching is a linguistic term that refers to the action of moving between two forms of English in two different settings. It’s commonly used by black Americans to describe the difference between African American vernacular and standard English.
When Carr was first starting out, he said he used to code-switch all the time, but he’s been able to combine his two vernaculars into one over time.
“People don’t really realize that it really is the equivalent of speaking two languages. It’s knowing when you have to speak proper, standard American English when you’re in a professional setting,” he said. “One of the things people don’t realize is how mentally taxing it is being a black professional. It’s all these ... gymnastics that you have to do to actually function, and it’s very stressful.”
In the programs Carr runs at APL, he includes lessons on effective communication, teaching the students how to communicate in professional environments.
“When you’re in a field that’s very academic and very intellectual and the word around town is that you’re the token black person, because ‘we had to meet this quota,’ they aren’t expecting much from you,” he said. “So, getting in there, saying ‘I have a voice, I want to contribute, I have value that I want to add to this project and this mission’ is huge.”