The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on Saturday hosted STEM Day, an event to provide mentoring opportunities by STEM professionals to Black youth, an underrepresented group among aspiring scientists and engineers.
Created with the intent to inspire the Black youth, many Black professionals in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career sectors are working to revitalize a sense of confidence and interest from Black children when it comes to pursuing related careers.
“Naturally, the kids are drawn to STEM, but the parents aren’t enforcing it into their character,” said Shawn Moseley, father of two STEM students and member of the National Society of Black Engineers, one of the participating organizations. “I have introduced my kid, [who] isn’t naturally drawn to STEM. But I see other parents that have joined the program for the same reason, but aren’t enforcing it. So when there are competing schedules with sports and STEM, they take them to sports. I think we definitely don’t enforce the value of STEM over any other subject.”
Another of the event’s participants was Black Women in Science And Engineering (BWISE), an organization created by Erika Jefferson to maintain and champion Black women in the STEM fields. BWISE set their exhibit in honor of biomedical engineer Patricia Bath, a trailblazer in health sciences and the first African American to receive a residency at New York University in ophthalmology, as well as the first African American woman to receive a medical patent.
Bath would work to later invent the Laserphaco Probe made for cataract treatment in 1986 — a game-changing invention that has assisted and influenced the work of numerous health physicians since.
“I’m an optometrist and I directly benefited from her invention,” said Dr. Helene Clayton-Jeter, who attended Saturday’s event. “I co-manage patients with an opthamologist, and with her invention, it enabled patients that lowered their risk for infection, and inflammation. So when they came back to me for treatment, my success, as far as the visual success, was enhanced because of her invention.”
Wanda Scott, director of BWISE’s D.C.-area chapter, said that while African American representation within the health sciences and engineering fields is low, part of the solution is fostering an atmosphere of inclusion.
“We’ve learned for many years that it’s not about the lack of aptitude, but it’s about the stimulation and about the belonging once you get there,” said Wanda Scott, director of BWISE’s D.C.-area chapter. “If you talk about diversity and inclusion, they do all these initiatives and then once we get in position, we feel like we don’t belong. We’re not supported, we’re not acknowledged. It’s not so much about getting the young people into it. If you get them into it, they’re not going to stay because of the environment they are entering into.”
T’Keyah Payne, a 16-year-old student from Chester High School in Pennsylvania who attended the event as part of a school trip, said she has had a knack for engineering since the 7th grade and plans to continue feeding her passion once she begins undergraduate studies in a few years.
“When I graduate high school, I want to go to college and major in engineering,” she said.