Detroit native Matthew Nelson, 32, comes from a long line of autoworkers for Ford and Chrysler. His father was a millwright for 35 years. Before that, his grandfather was a machinist for 30 years, working around chemicals to provide a better life for his family. But it's been awhile since auto manufacturing provided stable middle-class jobs in the Motor City.
Because Nelson demonstrated an early aptitude for math and science in high school, he was ushered into studying engineering as a scholarship-funded undergraduate at the University of Michigan. But his engineering journey was anything but smooth. Unsure if it was the right move, Nelson struggled, underperformed and ultimately dropped out in 2005.
After taking a few years to figure out his next steps, driving a truck in Michigan, even moving to England for a short while, Nelson enrolled in Lansing Community College in 2011, where he earned a near perfect grade-point average. He returned to the University of Michigan, becoming the first black student to participate in the university's multidisciplinary design project program, which gives engineering students tangible, real-world experience.
Now, Nelson is the national chairperson for the National Society for Black Engineers, or NSBE, a student-governed nonprofit with over 31,000 members that seeks to connect black engineers with STEM careers and increase networking opportunities within the black community. Having climbed the ranks to become a regional finance chair, then national finance chair, to the national assistant treasurer, Nelson finally found his footing in a community of peers.
Nelson's difficulty in finding success is a common narrative among young African-Americans. Despite African-Americans being 13.3% of the U.S. population, there's a disproportionately low number of black students graduating with technical degrees. In 2010, only 1% of black American college freshmen were in engineering programs, according to NSBE cited by The Atlantic. Even worse, the percentage of bachelor degrees awarded to blacks has been on the decline, lowering from 4.6% in 2009 to 3.5% in 2014.
"Because engineering is a vehicle to improve your socio-economic status and your quality of life," Nelson says, it's disappointing to see so little black representation in the field, particularly among those in low-income communities.
Some schools and nonprofits have noticed the gap and are taking calculated initiatives to change the current trends. In particular, the NSBE set what Nelson called a "big, hairy, audacious" societal goal of getting 10,000 black engineering graduates annually by 2025. But it's going to take focus and commitment.
A multifaceted problem: The underrepresentation of African-Americans in engineering is complex and systemic, the result of myriad issues like a lack of access to math classes in public schools, poor financial aid for low-income college students, a lack of tutoring and even an acute shortage of books. The upshot is a general lack of visibility among African-American kids of the potential promised by an engineering career.
"Our public school system has been decimated," Nelson said. "Budgets at the state level have been cut. There is rampant corruption in the public school system and on top of that you have recruiting practices at the university changing."
Social biases also permeate the classroom to the extent that black students are stigmatized in a team dynamic. "People don't think you can compete or contribute at a high level to a team," Nelson said. "We still have black fathers telling their daughters, 'You're not good at math.'"
Alexis Coates, a fifth-year senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Engineering, has heard that kind of discouragement before. "As a black woman pursuing an engineering degree, I've found myself having to prove myself to my peers before they trust that I'm fully competent in the work that I do," said Coates, who earned her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. "I've had people try to discourage me, alluding to my aspirations being a little too big, or try to shield me from an environment in which I'm not cut out to handle."
STEM summer camps do exist and try to get young folks interested in engineering, but Nelson said there's a lack of effective coordination and structure among them to promote diversity. "Is this country really interested in solving the problem of the lack of diversity?" he said. "There's no lack of resources around this problem."
There also aren't enough established black engineers advocating for awareness in the space or acting as role models, said Gary May, dean of Georgia Tech.
"In this day and age, I don't think people are willing to pay the price that it takes for real transformation in this country," Nelson said.
Expose and retain: So how then are 10,000 black students supposed to make it to graduation against these odds? The answer, said Norman Fortenberry, lies in exposure.
"It's crucial to introduce young African-Americans as young as elementary and middle school to engineering," said Fortenberry, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education. Essentially, early exposure introduces the possibility of a career in engineering at a stage when the child has no preconceived notions about what they can and cannot do. Coates, for instance, was in 10th grade when she attended a summer program at Georgia Tech, which inspired her to study engineering. However, she felt like a rarity among the rest of her peers, who were almost all white males.
It is also vital to get students prepared for higher education. This includes ACT and SAT prep, tutoring and robotics competition — basically, things to "create a compelling portfolio when it's time to apply to college," Fortenberry said. Failing to do so often results in missing deadlines to have the right prerequisites for an engineering future.
Nelson said the NSBE initiative cannot end with the acceptance letter — only a third of black engineering undergraduate students actually achieve their degree within six years. While the NSBE's original goal was to get 10,000 students into college, the organization pivoted their focus to retention. "It's not enough to get people interested in the field, we need more people earning degrees," Nelson said.
Engineering schools are beginning to do their part. Out of around 370 engineering colleges in the United States, some 170 deans have signed the ASEE's Deans Diversity Initiative Letter, essentially a promise to "enhance recruitment, retention and professional success," according to Fortenberry.
Georgia Tech has been a leader in producing minority engineers for the past decade or so, according to May. And it's "not happening by accident, there's a real intentional atmosphere here." May said the school spends seven figures on programs and faculty specifically for increasing diversity. Georgia Tech's College of Engineering has the Center for Engineering Education and Diversity, or CEED, which specifically works with engineering students of color.
Networks like those provided by CEED or NSBE's 394 national chapters are essential sources of support and empowerment. "Through my interactions with CEED, I've had access to financial, academic and career preparation resources," Coates said. "CEED has served as a safe space where I can feel 100% myself."
And that ability to be authentic and contribute an authentic viewpoint, said Coates, is exactly what the industry needs right now. "The current landscape for minorities in STEM fields is a misrepresentation of the population... which means that there are ideas and perspectives that have fallen through the cracks," she said. "Through diversity of thought and varying perspectives, innovation arises."