A Case Study of Students in Career and Technical Student Organizations

By Nicole Yates

What impact do NSBE and other like organizations have on their members? A new study shows that high school students participating in career and technical student organizations (CTSOs) and activities have clearer career paths. In partnership with Skills USA and the Educational Research Center of America, the Manufacturing Institute completed a study, “Attracting the Next Generation Workforce,” which focused on the vocational interests of students in career and technical education (CTE) courses. The key findings, although specific to students taking CTE courses, can also shed light on participants in NSBE activities.

The first question the study covers pertains to factors that influence students’ career choices. The overwhelming majority of CTSO participants cite their own experiences as the most important factor, above parental advice, classes, social media and school counselor input. This finding underscores the importance of providing students with as much exposure to engineering as possible, both in and out of school. Although NSBE is not classified as a CTSO, it does similarly provide students with extracurricular technical experiences that can influence their future career choices. NSBE’s goal of graduating 10,000 Black Engineers annually by 2025 depends on exposure of pre-college students to engineering and will only be successful if we as an organization can expand our reach.

Other findings support the importance of participation in vocation-focused extracurricular activities: researchers found that nearly two-thirds of students participating in CTSOs say their career paths are clearer as a result, compared with a little more than one-third of non-CTSO students. Within NSBE, students enter a pipeline that directs them toward engineering degrees and careers at each stage. Thus, we can expect that our high school members also envision their career plans with more clarity than their non-NSBE member counterparts do. It is important to note that students in CTE courses can matriculate directly into the workforce after high school. The vast majority of engineers need a college education at minimum, but the same logic applies to college degrees: if the experiences a student had in high school solidify her choice to become an engineer, she will begin college with that end in mind.

Another significant measure in this study asked students about their experiences with prospective future employers: a potentially critical factor in career choices. Traditional experiences with future employers include internships, career fairs and mentorship initiatives. However, less than 10 percent of participants reported having done internships, which may be surprising, since internships are commonly touted as excellent career development experiences with mutual benefits to employers and future employees. The need for more involvement from companies becomes clear here. NSBE students may engage with corporate representatives at career fairs twice per year, but does that constitute their only point of contact? With more participation in chapter activities, companies can accomplish the dual goals of promoting their brands and recruiting more of the best and brightest.

At the conclusion of the study, the authors make recommendations that encourage alignment of career-focused programs and services. Based on those, I offer four recommendations to NSBE in pursuit of the 2025 goal:

WHAT IMPACT DO NSBE AND OTHER LIKE ORGANIZATIONS HAVE ON THEIR MEMBERS? A NEW STUDY SHOWS THAT HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS PARTICIPATING IN CAREER AND TECHNICAL STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS (CTSOS) AND ACTIVITIES HAVE CLEARER CAREER PATHS.

  1. Expand the reach of NSBE by creating and supporting new chapters, strengthening existing chapters and enriching programming for chapters.
  2. Explore new constituencies by raising awareness of NSBE in diverse communities.
  3. Partner with local and national businesses to solicit guest speakers for chapter events.
  4. Provide robust resources for engineers looking to obtain licenses in their field.

By aligning NSBE’s activities on the local, regional and national levels, the organization can continue to expose more pre-college students to engineering and fuel the workforce pipeline. Success in NSBE’s mission depends on each of us, from Professionals; corporate, government and nonprofit partners; and college students who actively participate in NSBE Jr. chapter activities to the parents who advocate for chapters in their children’s schools. The next generation of engineers is being developed, and their experiences matter.

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Want to Graduate? Join NSBE

NSBE works. As members and leaders, we know this anecdotally, but one study quantified NSBE’s impact on graduation rates. In their recent submission to the American Society for Engineering Education, Monique Ross of Purdue University and Susan McGrade, Ph.D. of the Indiana Institute of Technology found that 82 percent of black students who were NSBE members at a Midwestern university graduated within six years, compared with only 7.7 percent of non-NSBE, African-American engineering students. Eighty-two percent. That means the NSBE members graduated at a rate more than 10 times higher than that of non-NSBE students.

Why does NSBE work? In this paper, the authors assert that NSBE provides a holistic social space for members to engage in quality relationships, participate in activities and cultivate a sense of belonging. NSBE promotes a culture of solidarity, so increasing retention in engineering as a direct result of mutual support fits the society’s narrative perfectly. Transcripts of interviews with participants in the study, both current students and recent alumni, tell a compelling story, when coupled with statistics obtained from the university database. The three major recurring themes about the value of NSBE that surface in these interviews are family, confidence and pride.

The university at the center of this study is described as a “small, Midwestern, predominantly white university” with no minority engineering program coordinator, no black faculty in the College of Engineering and no other notable black student organizations on campus. This is where NSBE excels: in spaces where the black community craves organization. Think about the story of NSBE’s founders, affectionately known as “the Chicago Six.” They started by simply coming together with the common goal of graduating, and although they were a small group, they supported each other when their larger campus community did not.

One of the most exciting findings of this research is that NSBE membership facilitated feelings of belonging to both the engineering community and the broader campus community among the student participants in the study. Students who felt connected to NSBE also felt connected to engineering and the campus as a whole, despite the small African-American population and utter lack of black faculty in their discipline. In the comments included in the paper, participants reveal that NSBE provided them with a sense of community they may otherwise not have had or that they did not have during other stages of their education. Many of the NSBE members share stories of being “the only black kid” in class and tell how sharing that experience with others diminished their feelings of isolation.

When students join NSBE, they become members of a global network of engineers, most of whom have experienced the unique difficulties that come with being an African American in their field. If nothing else, this research should encourage our outreach to non-NSBE members, especially those who are struggling. It is not enough for current members to succeed: as a Society, we must continually invite others into our community to make progress toward the goal of graduating 10,000 Black Engineers every year at the bachelor’s degree level. With 2025 swiftly approaching, achieving this dramatic increase in engineering graduates may seem like a daunting task, however, the first step can be as simple as an invitation.

Source: Ross, M. and McGrade, S. (2016). An exploration into the impacts of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) on student persistence. Submitted to the American Society for Engineering Education’s 123rd Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, La.

Is the Black Engineering Crisis a Woman Problem?

Written by:

Karl W. Reid, Ed.D
Executive Director
National Society of Black Engineers
Erika Jefferson
Founder
Black Women in Science and Engineering
Valerie Thomas
Director
Women in Science and Engineering
Special Interest Group
National Society of Black Engineers

Back in 2007, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), coined the phrase “the quiet crisis” to describe the growing gap between the nation’s demand for engineers and scientists and the inadequate pool of skilled talent to meet the demand. She argued that our nation’s failure to provide students from all backgrounds with an adequate education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) explains why we’re not keeping up with the growing demand for technical talent. And given that Dr. Jackson’s concerns were raised nine years ago — at the dawn of both the mobile and social media revolutions, to name a few — the quiet crisis is no longer quiet!

NSBE 2025 and the Engineering Crisis Among Blacks

It’s now commonly known that the percentage of engineering degrees awarded to African Americans in the U.S. is on the decline, from 5.4 percent of all engineering degrees awarded in 2003 to 3.5 percent in 2014, according to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). This decade-long retrenchment is why the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) has announced its strategic plan goal to nearly triple the number of black engineers this country produces annually, from 3,500 in 2012 to 10,000 by 2025.

Invariably, many NSBE members and other stakeholders ask the next obvious question: How do we get to 10,000? In addition to our published plans to expand and scale-up our programs and partnerships in all segments of the educational pipeline, one recent study suggests another clear path to 10K.

A recent book edited by John Slaughter, Yu Tao and Willie Pearson Jr., “Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience,” suggests that the engineering crisis among blacks in America is a black woman crisis. In other words,the percentage of African Americans is declining in engineering largely because fewer African-American women are earning degrees in the field.

Another Quiet Crisis Is Simmering

In one chapter, Shirley Malcom and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux paint a sobering picture. African-American women have a two-to-one advantage over African-American men in overall undergraduate enrollment and degrees awarded (problematic statistics in their own right), however, black men enrolled in engineering programs outnumber women by three to one. “Since 1977,” they write, “the female advantage that African American women experience in college enrollment and earned bachelor’s degrees does not translate to large numbers in the field of engineering.”

To put this in perspective, Monique Ross of Purdue University, in a recent study, summarizes it this way: although black women comprise 6.4 percent of the general population, they make up only 1.2 percent of undergraduate engineering enrollment and 0.77 percent of all engineering degrees awarded! It’s hard to become more underrepresented than this.

The researchers make it clear for NSBE that the path to 10,000 must proactively include black women. According to Malcom and Malcom-Piqueux,

If African American women earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering at the same rate as their male counterparts, this would yield more than 3,500 additional African American engineering bachelor’s degree holders annually.

Gender parity will double the number of black engineers this country produces and get us two-thirds of the way to our 2025 goal.

What Do We Do?

We need to be intentional about increasing black girls’ and black women’s interest in, awareness of and self-efficacy with regard to engineering. Here are a few ways we can collectively make this happen.

Change the conversation about engineering. The National Academy of Engineering’s efforts to “change the conversation” about engineering shift the focus from hard, technical descriptions located in disciplinary silos such as “electrical engineering” to a more contemporary reality that engineers solve cross-disciplinary problems that benefit people’s lives, a message that has resonated with young people, and especially young women.

Increase interest. Fewer black women are expressing interest in engineering at the onset. According to the National Science Foundation, only 3.2 percent of African-American freshmen women express interest in majoring in engineering, compared with 14.6 percent of black males. Engineering must be made more accessible by aligning the discipline with the interests of girls and young women. For instance, demonstrating how engineering is being used to improve the quality of lives for countless communities and people may make it more appealing.

Create more mastery experiences for girls. Developing self-efficacy (confidence) early in math and science for girls (and boys, too) is key to turning the trends around. Providing girls with exposure to engineering problems and opportunities to be successful in solving them is an important path to 10,000. NSBE’s all-girls and co-ed SEEK (Summer Engineering Experience for Kids) programs provide elementary school students with an opportunity to learn and apply engineering principles to build and present toys, all while boosting their math skills, affirming their identity and building self-confidence.

Showcase role models. There are innumerable examples of black women who have achieved academic and professional success as engineers. For instance, women make up 40 percent of the pre-collegiate, collegiate and professional membership of NSBE, a number that is double the national average of women in the engineering workforce. By having access to formal mentorships and being exposed to the personal and professional accomplishments of female engineers, more young girls could see that a career in engineering is possible. NSBE’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Special Interest Group and the Houston-based Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE) organizations provide great opportunities for women to network virtually and in person, while offering a great source of brilliant role models for those who are inspired to follow in their footsteps.

The path to 10,000 must engage more black women to pursue engineering. This is a call to action. By changing the conversation about engineering, creating more awareness and access, and leveraging existing networks, we can equip more black women to solve the increasingly complex problems of the 21st century, problems that engineers’ technical training and innovative mindsets are uniquely positioned to solve.