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Efforts made to steer women, minorities to science careers

By Kirsten Mullen

CorrespondentNovember 10, 2013

Stargazing is a “commonality across the human experience,” former NASA astronaut Mae Carol Jemison said to a room of skeptical Duke University science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors. The world’s first woman of color to complete a space flight was science mission specialist on the Endeavour crew.

Jemison was in Durham Oct. 25-26 for the Race in Space conference hosted by Duke’s Department of African and African American Studies.

“How many of you have ever thought of space exploration or being involved with space?” she asked.

Incredibly, only one student affirmed that she had had a personal experience with stars or the night sky as a child: Jemison had been the subject of her third-grade science project.

One attendee, Liza Sukra, of Guianese descent, said she first learned about Jemison from her Girl Scout troop leader: “I came here to meet a living legend.” When Jemison told the group that the European Space Agency launched from French Guiana, the listeners were astonished.

A medical doctor who trained in chemical engineering and African and Afro-American studies at Stanford University, when few women and blacks were STEM majors, Jemison, now 57, was inspired by a fictional character, Lt. Nyota Uhura of “Star Trek,” played by Nichelle Nichols.

“We have so many assumptions that keep us out of fields of inquiry,” Jemison said, “but space exploration is transdisciplinary.” Her presentation chronicled the “Unlikely Story of NASA and the Civil Rights Movement,” two undertakings that took off starting in the late 1950s. President Lyndon Johnson saw NASA – headquartered in the heart of the old Confederacy (Alabama, Florida and Texas) – and the space program, which was governed by the Equal Opportunity mandate, as vehicles to transform the South.

Duke’s William Darity Jr., Arts & Sciences professor of public policy and professor of African and African-American studies and economics, said the goal of the Race in Space conference was “to explore the ways that race, culture and nationality might play out in the colonization of space stations, planets and star systems.”

Minorities and STEM

A major concern is the persistent under-representation of people of color in the STEM disciplines. With the exception of chemistry and medicine, few African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are engaged in STEM fields. Three area university faculty members offered insights into the problem and discussed the efforts their institutions are making to reverse the trend.

In “America’s Future Demands a Diverse and Competitive STEM Workforce,” an essay published in “The State of Black America 2011: Jobs Rebuild America” (National Urban League), Rhonda Sharpe, director of the Global Inequality Research Initiative at Duke, noted that in 2010, fewer than 25 African-Americans nationally received doctorate degrees in the fields of aerospace, astronomy, atmospheric and physical sciences, earth sciences and oceanography combined: “The factors impeding persistence at the undergraduate level are academic preparation, adequate financial aid and strong support networks in college.”

While more black high school students are enrolled in rigorous math courses, an even greater proportion of white students take those classes, so significant gaps remain. Between 2000 and 2009, blacks represented 15 percent of the labor force but accounted for only 7.4 percent of the scientific workforce. Numbers for Latinos are only slightly higher, while the Native American presence in the sciences workforce falls in the 0 percent to 1 percent range.

Tarek Echekki, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at N.C. State University, said reversing that trend will require a multi-pronged approach directed at “all levels, from the formative years of elementary school – and perhaps earlier – to the university level, where faculty and R&D scientists run into obstacles while attempting to succeed in their fields.”

Echekki likens the problem to a pipeline “with many leaks diverting people of color – and under-represented groups in STEM, in general – from science and technologies fields.” Plugging those leaks will require “access to opportunities and resources for K-12, overcoming stereotypes of what STEM fields involve (and) misconceptions about the kinds of people who work in these fields,” providing incentives for students “to stay in STEM tracks in college and building resiliency in people who may find themselves isolated or labeled.”

Outreach programs

Caesar Jackson, geophysicist and dean of the School of Graduate Studies at N.C. Central University, is on the front line in the quest to draw more people of color to the STEM fields. NCCU has launched multiple outreach programs designed to “identify, motivate and excite young scientists in the making,” and is the site of the NASA University Center for Aerospace Devices Research and Education.

The NASA-CADRE project was created, he said, to “provide a framework for broadly based, competitive, multi-disciplinary science and engineering research.”

“While the production of the next class of astronauts or space scientists is not a direct goal of the collaboration,” Jackson said, students and faculty across disciplines “support space exploration and space research.”

Darity, the Duke professor who organized the Race in Space conference, added, “STEM training is necessary but not sufficient. We also have to root out discriminatory exclusion for blacks who have obtained all of the requisite training.”

Read more here:

"The Legacy of Lt. Uhura: Astronaut Mae Jemison on Race in Space"

Conference explores issues of race in the context of space travel exploration

October 28, 2013 | Camille Jackson

DURHAM, NC - Astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to go into space with the U.S. space program, told a crowd of nearly 100 Friday evening that Star Trek inspired her.

"As a little girl growing up on the south side of Chicago in the ‘60s I always knew I was going to be in space," she said from the podium in Richard White lecture Hall.  Star Trek's Lt. Uhura, an African-American character from science fiction, encouraged her to literally reach for the stars.

"We may not all want to go but we all want to know what its like," she said of outer space. "It's a part of our deepest longing as humans. Fundamentally we want to know who we are and where we come from."

Jemison's talk opened the Department of African & African American Studies' " Race in Space " conference.    The two-day event highlighted the astronauts, researchers, artists and authors who have studied the dynamics of race in the context of space travel and study.

"Who's going to be included in the process of space exploration? And are we going to reproduce the same dynamics of race and class on this planet?" said William Darity, the department chair and co-organizer. 

Jemison is the principal behind " 100 Year Star Ship ," a program she designed to ensure that humans will have the capability to travel to another star system in the next 100 years.

During her talk she described how civil rights legislation opened the doors for African-American scientists and engineers.

"Companies that wanted federal money had to have an equal opportunity program in place," she said. "NASA had to take them in and offer the same vocational training. It's didn't always go smoothly but it made a difference."

By the '70s, a new crop of women, also inspired by Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, joined NASA.

"She used her celebrity to bring in applications -- and she did it on her own," Jemison said.

Durham resident,  Ruthie Lyle-Cannon , said Jemison had inspired her to pursue electrical engineering when she was 15 years old. She later became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering from New York University.

Jemison advocated for diversity within the STEM disciplines, because diversity of perspectives can help speed advancements in these and other areas.

She said space exploration is the basis of much of the innovation and behind some of humanity's most significant advances. Rather than distance us from the problems and experiences on Earth, interest in space and the study of other planets helps us learn about our own planet, she said.

For example, studying space has advanced knowledge about extreme environments, insulation technology and how to make items smaller and lighter. Studying the effects of space travel in low gravity has improved our understanding of human physiology. 

The interest in space travel is also shaping research on topics such as how to manage big data and communications across vast distances.  Space travel requires better understanding of decision-making and human relations in close quarters, how we eat, and even how we clothe our bodies.

"You're going to have to make your own clothing. It's got to be made from recyclable material because there's no cotton in space. Maybe polyester suits are coming back… you must think about the cleaning and disposal of clothing, one of our most resource-intensive processes, differently," Jemison said. "Once we think about life in space, it changes life on earth."

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"Race in Space" Conference Participants on "The State of Things"

Conference Examines People Of Color In Space Exploration

Recently, the  Voyager One  space craft entered interstellar space, the farthest a man-made object has ever traveled. But as we push the bounds of space travel, the number of people of color in space-related careers remains low. This weekend, Duke University is holding the first conference to explore the intersection of identity and space exploration, “ Race in Space .” Host Frank Stasio speaks with conference participants about the involvement of people of color in space-related careers.

Rhonda Sharpe , a visiting professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, spoke with Host Frank Stasio about the “Race in Space” conference’s goal of addressing the underrepresentation of people of color in the STEM fields.  

“We have your writers and artists who have been challenging us to think about space travel…and we’re thinking about the challenges within STEM which is science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Sharpe explains. “How do you get folks to come together and have a conversation, so this is more of a reality? So that there is a generation of young folks who see [careers in STEM] as a possibility?”

Ytasha Womack, author of “ Afrofuturism : The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture ,” mentions that for people to see space-related careers as a possibility for them, the issue extends outside of the classroom. Womack speaks with Host Frank Stasio about Afrofuturism and the need for art and media to address people of color’s involvement in space travel. (Chicago Review Press; 2013). 

“Afrofuturism looks at the parallels between the imagination, technology, Black culture, and liberation in order to expand our idea of race and boundaries….One of the primary ways of exploring this in science fiction, is creating more images of people of color in space, just as a visual,” Womack remarks. “One of the challenges and opportunities that many artists have today is to be able to create these images, whether it’s through film or visual arts or literature; and inspire the imagination…so people can see themselves in space travel. It also breaks a lot of limitations and barriers of what can be, so you can view yourself as a change agent.”

Guests point out that science fiction in particular is a vehicle for talking about alienation, and being an outsider. They mention that these themes are paralleled to race in many ways.   Jarita Holbrook , astrophysicist, science fiction writer and filmmaker, connects themes of alienation with the people of color’s involvement in STEM careers.

“[Science fiction addresses] who has the right to go in space? It’s the same issues that we’re dealing with concerning diversity in STEM. Who has the right to create knowledge? Who is relegated to just consuming knowledge. How is that a practice of exclusion?” Holbrook continues, “When you go into space it’s the same sorts of thing. What kind of jobs are people of color allowed to have in the space race?”

And it’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake. Sharpe argues that people of color bring new knowledge and innovation to STEM careers.

“When you think about a population of folks who have had limited resources, you can become incredibly innovative… Diversity means people think about their circumstances and how we can alter that,” says Sharpe. “Many of us are driven to go into science because we see a problem in their neighborhood and want to solve it.  But we don’t necessarily think about stepping outside of the box and transferring your knowledge to another realm.

Duke University’s Race in Space Conference is October 25th and 26th. For more information, click  HERE .

AFROFUTURISM: The World of Black Sci Fi & Fantasy Culture

    • ytasha

AFROFUTURISM: The World of Black Sci Fi & Fantasy Culture (Lawrence Hill Books) by author Ytasha L. Womack (Post Black, Rayla 2212) BOOK LAUNCHES OCT 2013. Comprising elements of the avant-garde, science fiction, cutting-edge hip-hop, black comix, and graphic novels, Afrofuturism spans both underground and mainstream pop culture. With a twofold aim to entertain and enlighten, Afrofuturists strive to break down racial, ethnic, and all social limitations to empower and free individuals to be themselves. This book introduces readers to the burgeoning artists creating Afrofuturist works, the history of innovators in the past, and the wide range of subjects they explore.