STEM Education at HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have contributed meaningfully to the preparation of qualified STEM educators and researchers. HBCUs, as institutions of higher education, have a 100 plus year historical legacy of preparing students for the rigors of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). These institutions of higher education have contributed significantly to diversity within STEM majors and careers.

Student success comes through HBCU faculty and administrators using their respective positions, access to resources, and commitment to educational praxis to safeguard the brightness of underrepresented students and support them towards success through STEM disciplines.

There are currently 102 HBCUs in the United States, representing 3 percent of institutions of higher education in America. Despite enrolling only 9 percent of African American undergraduate students, HBCUs produce 17 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 25 percent of bachelor’s degrees in education, and 22 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields to African American students. This means that HBCUs overproduce bachelor’s degrees to African Americans nationally despite only operating in 19 states and the District of Columbia. HBCUs also award a significant percentage of undergraduate degrees in the sciences to African Americans.

According to Clay Phillips (2013), less than 9 percent of African American college students attend HBCUs, yet these institutions produce most of the STEM undergraduate degrees earned by African Americans.

Although the student population at the majority of HBCUs remains predominantly black, the racial diversity of such institutions has undergone tremendous changes over the years. Black students make up approximately 76 percent of students attending HBCUs. Students from other racial and ethnic groups, on the other hand, comprise the remaining 24 percent. The enrollment at HBCUs is further divided into 13 percent white students, 5 percent students whose race or ethnicity is unknown, 3 percent Latino and Latina students, 1 percent Asian-American students, 1 percent of students who identify as biracial or multiracial, and 1 percent of students classified as undocumented students.

The K12 STEM education literature laments the under-preparedness of African American students for the rigors of next level STEM courses. Low scores on STEM achievement measures, national and international, are repeatedly reported. Numerous reasons are offered to articulate why students are under-prepared. The reasons span the gamut from out of field teachers to disengaged students and parents to lack of challenging courses and curricula and lack of access to advanced placement courses. Yet, in still, some of these same students enter HBCUs through open access admission. They exit HBCUs successful in STEM. What is the difference?

We cannot argue that the instructional strategies of faculty are much different from those observed in K12 STEM classrooms. They are not. In fact, the entire field of higher education is aligning to improve STEM instruction; much like the K12 community has been doing for many years. Again, what is different? The student profile is the same. The instructional strategies are similar. What is it that HBCUs are doing to generate success in a disciplinary space that seems elusive to K12 STEM educators and others within higher education? And, how can educators in the K12 space and at other institutions of higher education learn from what HBCU faculty are doing with underrepresented students in STEM?

A thorough review of the literature reveals the difference between the engagement of faculty and students at HBCUs faculty and students in K12 institutions and other institutions of higher education. In short, HBCUs deliberately and consciously focus on brokering access to STEM through a variety of policies, practices, and activities.

They do not leave the STEM success of students to chance. Surprisingly, they enact practices and activities that are within the reach of K12 administrators and educators.

There has to be a willingness to deliberately and intentionally ensure the STEM success of every student who walks through the corridors and classrooms of K12 institutions, especially high schools.

Although it is clear that the nation has positioned to address the crisis in preparing all students for success in STEM disciplines, it seems to be a daunting task for too many to ensure the success of women and girls of color in STEM. Nevertheless, HBCUs set a trajectory many years ago, to nurture the collective strengths of all students and to equip them to defy the odds, particularly the odds of becoming scientists, engineers, IT professionals, and mathematicians.

In this model of empowerment, HBCU faculty and administrators incorporated components that now serve as national recommendations on how to engage, sustain and expand underrepresented minority students’ participation in STEM. Such components include the following: a) pre-freshman and STEM summer bridge programs; b) opportunities for students to become involved in peer reviewed research projects for at least two academic years, c) dedicated STEM faculty and administrators who serve as mentors and are accessible to students outside of the formal classroom environment, and d) execution of high impact practices that include teaching critical thinking, effective communication and quantitative literacy skills.

While the nation is responding to an explosive mixture of two pervasive cultural practices—insufficient preparation of African American students in STEM education and the resultant limited economic prosperity due to the perceived absence of valued knowledge and skills, HBCUs are continuing to defy predicted chances for certain students’ success. Other institutions of higher education turn from the challenges of academically under-prepared students in exasperation opting to admit only students who are already deemed prepared and ready.

This pivot is exhibited in the face of a harsh reality–that many courses and classroom experiences do not full equip students for academic success in STEM especially for those already struggling. Nonetheless, HBCUs remain unwavering in their mission accepting students regardless. HBCUs take the calculated risk and provide a host of support mechanisms designed to bolster student success primarily in STEM.

Then, HBCU faculty and administrators bridge access to institutions of higher education that could not initially see talent or potential residing within the same student who was previously denied access. Oftentimes, institutional brokerage comes through required adult professional collaboration and recommendations. These collaborations are not unique practices within higher education. However, they have not been considered or written about extensively when it comes to the professional practices of HBCU faculty. Brokering access for continual student success has been the unsung practice of HBCU faculty and administrators since the founding of these institutions.

Ironically, HBCU faculty and administrators were busy doing the work of student success not necessarily writing about it. They likely did not know that anthropology had a term for their commitment to educational excellence. It is called Praxis.

Praxis is a revolutionary act strategically directed toward the liberation of working- or lower-class people. Praxis practitioners are engaged in complex interactions with social reality, as it is lived “on the ground”.

In sum, K12 educators and faculty at other institutions of higher education can learn from HBCU faculty and administrator’s educational praxis. Understanding the nuances of their perspectives and practices actually positions all institutions of higher education for success in recruiting, educating, and graduating students historically underrepresented in STEM.