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Changing the Face of Engineering

Posted on March 12, 2018
Students work on a coding project as part of an outreach program organized by the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), one of the lead organizations of the 50K Coalition. Credit: National Society of Black Engineers
Students work on a coding project as part of an outreach program organized by the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), one of the lead organizations of the 50K Coalition. Credit: National Society of Black Engineers

A national collaboration called the 50K Coalition is making steady progress in building a framework to dramatically increase diversity in engineering three years after its 2015 inception. “We want to change the face of engineering,” says Karl Reid, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) (PAESMEM Organization 2003), which initially launched the effort with three other leading organizations dedicated to increasing the number of underrepresented groups in engineering. The Coalition has grown from just those initial four members when it started to more than 40 organizations. Its goal is to graduate 50,000 diverse engineers each year in the U.S. by 2025.

If successful, those numbers would represent a striking change from today. Right now, nearly 115,000 students in the U.S. earn undergraduate engineering degrees every year. But less than a third, just 30,000, are either from underrepresented minority populations or are women.

“The number of jobs requiring engineering education is growing within the United States, but the number of students earning degrees in those fields remains stagnant. This imbalance threatens our nation's future economic competitiveness, our quality of life and our national security,” according to the 50K Coalition’s website.

Building a coalition

 In late 2015, the Coalition’s effort began with a series of strategic planning meetings, organized by NSBE, along with other engineering organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and, later, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (PAESMEM (1997).

“We shared with them our goal of increasing black engineering graduates to 10,000 annually by 2025, and they estimated what they could do. In the end, we came up with a total of 50,000 engineering graduates that we could collectively work to achieve annually. That would represent a 66 percent increase over current graduation rates for underrepresented engineering graduates,” recalls Reid.

With a bold vision, the 50K Coalition began lining up resources and processes to achieve collective impact. With initial funding from the United Engineering Foundation (UEF), the coalition hired two project managers to assist the four founding organizations in establishing shared program objectives, methods and key performance metrics. In addition, NSBE applied for and won a “launch pilot project” grant in 2016 from National Science Foundation’s Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) initiative to help create a central operations hub or “backbone” for the 50K Coalition’s work and a second UEF in 2017 to expand its efforts.

NSBE plan represents model for other groups

To establish benchmarks for its work, NSBE created a white paper that identified barriers and strategies for changing current trends in engineering degree attainment by African Americans. The white paper outlines three areas that would help hike the number of engineering graduates among African Americans: awareness, access and proficiency.

“Too many young people are unaware of what an engineer does. Many think an engineer just drives trains,” says Reid.

Reid says even when African American students become aware of engineering as a career, nearly 40 percent of them are in high schools that don’t have the prerequisite mathematics and science courses to pursue engineering studies. Wedded to the access challenge for black students, Reid says, is their resultant low proficiency in mathematics and science at critical junctures of their K-12 matriculation.

“If you’re in the lowest quartile in mathematics in the 4th grade, you’re almost equally as likely to be at the bottom proficiency levels in 8th grade, and thus unlikely to be on a glide path to complete Calculus by 12th grade. Calculus is a gateway subject for engineering,” says Reid.

NSBE’s white paper calls for injecting strategic support projects to address these challenges. They include:

  • Summer camps and outreach programs that introduce engineering and increase math proficiency for K-12 students.
  • High school projects to help prepare students to pass Calculus.
  • Bridge programs for incoming freshman majoring in engineering.  
  • Scholarships to address the financial burdens of African American undergraduate and community college students.
  • Toolkit for supporting diversity at engineering schools of colleges and universities.

Leveraging results across the coalition

Members of the 50K Coalition include academic, corporate and civic organizations, supported by a Leadership Council comprising the heads of the founding four organizations. Partners have developed operational procedures that mutually reinforce the collective’s goals across six performance metrics. “We use Basecamp for project management and document archiving. Another tool, Clear Impact, allows our Coalition partners to submit their project plans, their mutually reinforcing activities that align with the 50K goals and their progress toward their respective goals,” Reid explains. 

Partners have strong mentoring programs which advance the Coalition’s common agenda. “We already know mentoring is a critical component of keeping underrepresented groups on the path to becoming engineers. Many of the organizations that join our effort seek to scale these programs by being part of a larger mission with collective impact,” he says. Reid adds that corporate partners of the Coalition have a vested interest in meeting the future demand for engineers and have programs committed to ensuring the next generation of engineers is more diverse.

As the 50K Coalition moves into the next phases of its work, Reid is buoyed by the collective’s milestones to date: receiving the 2017 National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Diversity Vision Award; securing three rounds of grant funding from UEF; and signing another corporate member—Bechtel Corporation, which joins Shell Oil Company, BP and Chevron as corporate 50K Coalition members. “We’ve been discussing how to increase diversity in engineering in the United States for more than 30 years,” Reid says. “Finally, we have the methodology, collective impact framework and the platform to ‘move the needle’ in a positive direction.”