Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring

Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering

The question titling this blog post was asked during dinner tonight – it’s a great way to kick off what is going to be an incredible week.
At 5’oclock this evening I registered for the PAESMEM (Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring) Symposium and Award ceremony.
For the next five days I will be in Washigton DC representing Project Exploration at a series of working sessions (inlcuding working meals!) alongside a handful of organizations and some of the most influential college and university researchers from around the country. What do we all have in common? A commitment to fostering the next generation of scientists – specifically scientists from historically underrepresented populations. 
What makes this group so influential? Most of them are working with tens and hundreds, sometimes thousands of would-be scientists – women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans. Most of the awardees are individuals who have created a space, or lab or program at their institions within which to encourage, support and grow students in science. Three of the 22 awardees are organizations: Project Exploration, the Leadership Alliance and the American Indian Institute for Innovation
Tonight Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland – a mathematician who cut his activist teeth in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham – kicked off the conversation, reminding us of some important context for our work. For example, only about 25% of the US population has a college degree – 17% of African Americans and only 11% of Hispanics compared to 32% of Whites and 55% of Asian Americans. Although the number of students going to college and getting degrees is going up, the disparities between Whites and Asians and other populations is severe. And the gap doesn’t really seem to be closing.
Most professors haven’t really seen large numbers of students of color in doctoral programs. Which means that when just ONE makes it to the doctorate level, or teaches at a college or university, they have the opportunity to touch hundreds of students. Freeman pointed out the critical issue is not just about helping students of color, but also about equipping White students to understand issues of underrepresentation as an American issue – not just an issue for and about people who historically have been underrepresented in science. True dat.
Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County with his colleague Dr. Kennedy Reed, Lawrence Livermore National Lab

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County with his colleague Dr. Kennedy Reed, Lawrence Livermore National Lab

“What can we do to get every kid excited about science?” Freeman asked. “Stories.” This was great to hear, given this approach is really at the heart of Project Exploration’s work.
Over the next few days I’ll try to capture some good photos and, more importantly, the ideas and themes that emerge from this group as we chew on some big questions:
what does it take to mentor students? how do current efforts at mentoring fit into what has been happening in the past? what can the White House do to increase diversity in the STEM workforce? what could a community of Presidential Award winners accomplish together?
I am extremely curious to hear what folks have to say. I come with some skepticism – so much of how science and science recruitment is structured is targeted at students who are excelling in school and who have an identified interest in science. At the college and graduate school level the primary questions people are asking seem to be
1) how do we GET capable students into science and have them excel? (this is the “how do we get a more diverse group of students into the pipeline)
2) how do we keep capable students IN science (the is the “fix the “leaks” in the pipeline line of questioning).
That is, these are the questions I’ve heard in the past – not the ones I’ve heard yet here. I don’t know what people are going to talk about yet — so stay tuned.
In the meantime, here’s a little Chicago juice for those of us egocentric about Chicago. I already met three people who are from Chicago!
One of these former-Chicagoans is from East Side, the neighborhood where I live. Yowzers small world! Nancy L. Elwess, SUNY College, Plattsburgh, NYNancy went to our very own Bowen High School and among other things, in her day job is training undergraduates in a lab that is testing DNA from Mayan skeletons unearthed in Belize. (Maybe we can get her interested in the DNA of the skeletons from Gobero’s Green Sahara).
Professor Kennedy Reed, the second south-sider I met tonight (pictured above)grew up in the Ida B. Wells. Ida B was mostly razed but one of the three remaining buildings includes the one he grew up in. attended Tilden Career Academy. At the time it was Tilden Technical and he talked about how his friends were all at Phillips. He didn’t want to attend Tilden but in hindsight he realizes that the opportunities Tilden provided would never have been avaialble at Phillips. Kennedy is a physicist at a National Lab – and has done incredible work to help develop physics students in Africa. His wife (Jane?) taught Chemistry at Kenwood Academy when they lived in Chicago together.
I’ll keep folks posted on whazzup with science mentoring from the front lines – with more photos tomorrow.
AND STAY TUNED because there’s just a small chance we’ll be getting a photo-op with President Obama on Wednesday. You KNOW I’ll be posting THAT photo!
In the meantime, here’s our poster from the event. We look so cool!
Project Exploration poster at the PAESMEM dinner, Jan. 4, 2009

Project Exploration poster at the PAESMEM dinner, Jan. 4, 2009