Cosby and the Engineering Kids

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

NOTE: This post was written in 2006, far before the more recent failings of Mr. Cosby (January 17, 2019, WSS)

This week I had the honor of attending a fundraising gala in New York City for the National Action Council on Minorities in Engineering, better known as NACME. If you don’t know them, you may know their slogan—“MATH is Power.”

The awards ceremony was posh, held at the glorious Waldorf Astoria and attended by some of America’s most affluent people, including Stephen Bechtel of the global conglomerate Bechtel Corporation. Bechtel received the NACME Corporate Citizenship Award for his contribution to diversity.

The feature for the evening was Bill Cosby, the 69-year old comedian. Cosby is a friend of NACME CEO John Brooks Slaughter, the former Occidental College President, and also entertained at the 2004 event. Cosby, perched in his chair at the front of the stage, directly facing the audience, had the crowd in hysterics over his observations about marriage, especially his analogy of the matrimonial institution to chess; “why can the King move but one square at a time while the Queen can go anywhere she wants, taking players down as she goes.”

Cosby and others were in attendance because students from underrepresented groups have been, well, underrepresented in the sciences, especially engineering, for seemingly ever. Today, only 12 percent of undergraduate engineers in the US are underrepresented minorities, and only 4 percent of minority high school graduates complete the math and science courses necessary to enter the engineering field. And this is after decades of hard work by NACME, NSF, NIH, HACU, HENAAC, and other organizations dedicated to expanding access to the sciences through research and scholarship programs. We still have barely made a dent, even though the percentage of people of color in the U.S. has risen dramatically. In a globally-competitive environment, where competition is less about Arizona vs. New York than the US vs. South Korea, our ability to attract students into STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) seems critical to success in the U.S.

Perhaps that’s why Bechtel and other industry leaders understand that Latino, Black, Native Americans, and other underrepresented groups are key players in our ability to remain globally competitive. If it stands true that we can’t produce enough engineers and scientists to remain competitive, then it follows that society and the individual would benefit from targeting these underrepresented groups, including women, to enter and succeed in STEM disciplines.

This all comes in light of last week’s commentary by Alex Usher, which focused on the “credentialization” of higher education. While it stands true, in an economic sense, that the value of an undergraduate degree will fall as more people earn them, it doesn’t cover the areas where there is a dearth of students, such as engineering. Our best bet is to move more of our historically underrepresented students into the STEM areas, which will ultimately make the US more competitive on a global scale.

At EPI, we initiated a study this week to measure the impact of NACME scholarships for underrepresented students. These scholarships provide $2,000 per student per year to help reduce the financial burden of attending engineering school. During our visit, we met with a gaggle of students over pizza to discuss their experiences. Of the 10 students in our focus group, all were graduates of a community college, which is interesting because it shows that students, especially those of color, are either forced or choose to take the 2-year step toward a 4-year degree. This is something we’ve known for some time, but it was particular interesting to see an entire group use this mode of access.

We can’t say much about the study at this point, but the students did say that the scholarships allowed them to work less, or not at all, or lessen their loan burden than if they didn’t receive the grant support. These are all important things to consider in the fight to earn an engineering degree, which is arguably more difficult, academically speaking, than many other disciplines in higher education.

In addition to the money, it is also interesting to note the support networks required by students to succeed. The FIU students talked about it, and I’ve heard from many students who say the same thing. People who have heard me speak understand my penchant for invoking the words of Art Levine, the former head of Teacher’s College and now the new President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Levine commented that it takes “one arm around one child” to make a difference in the lives of the underrepresented to succeed to and through higher education. The students at FIU would attest to that statement. However, they also had “grit” to succeed. These students were motivated.

So back to Bill Cosby. Cosby started and finished the night by telling the relatively affluent audience that their money was good. Indeed, important. But there is much more to it than money. He said we need to “massage the brain” of these students. Make engineering exciting and motivate students to work their way toward STEM careers, which must start at middle school due to the enhanced mathematics and science curriculum necessary for admissions. Cosby alluded to the four horsement of the apocalypse—Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, and Trigonometry. “Those four have killed more people than anything else in our society,” said Cosby. “We must stroke their brains and give them time.”

He finished with this: “If you ask me to tell you why I have passion for comedy, I can. I love what I do and that’s why I keep doing it. You have to do the same thing to students. It’s about passion.”

By the way, the evening helped raise $4 million for engineering scholarships and programs for NACME.

Have a good weekend, everyone. Enjoy the massage.

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