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.

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STEM and Social Justice: Applying an Engineering Lens to Social Change Part 2

Written by:

Karl W. Reid, Ed.D
Executive Director
National Society of Black Engineers
Emily Williams
Associate Director
Social Justice Initiative, University of Illinois at Chicago

The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) is rooted in social justice. In Part 1 of this blog, we made the case that engineers’ unique, disciplined approach to problem solving can be used not only in areas such as heat transfer and structural dynamics but also more broadly. Applying engineering to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and countless other global and domestic challenges is crucial if we want to improve and save lives.

But for most engineering students or professionals, it’s not often clear how to apply their discipline to redress social problems that are confronting our communities and the developing world. Here are a few suggestions:

Graduate with excellence. Every collegiate and pre-collegiate NSBE member has the same primary goal: to graduate with excellence. Earning a degree with the highest grades possible equips you to conquer social problems and increases your options to apply your skills, interests and passion anywhere.

Be multidisciplinary. The cofounders of #BlackLivesMatter did not simply found a movement on a whim. The idea for the hashtag and the conviction around the need for a movement were the result of studying and learning about black history, black feminism, black politics and queer theory. Broad study and intellectual curiosity have been encouraged and practiced by many of the young activists in the movement. In the same way, engineers can complement their technical and scientific knowledge with knowledge of the humanities, arts and social sciences.

Don’t accept the status quo. Our current world privileges some and subjugates others. This can change. When you invent new technology or perfect an existing model, ask who benefits and who loses from the end result. Will disadvantaged and already marginalized communities be able to access the product? Will the creation of said product or technology irreparably damage our planet? Adopting a sense of social responsibility means thinking about the impact we have on the world.

Find something you’re passionate about. Mike Murdock, in his book “The Assignment: Powerful Secrets for Discovering Your Destiny,” asserts, “What grieves you is a clue to something you’re assigned to heal.” Finding a cause or movement that emotionally fires you up may be a window to your calling, even if you respond by making it an extracurricular activity…for now.

Research what others have done or are doing. Chances are that there are others who share your passion and interest for a certain cause. However, as an engineer, your perspective may bring fresh solutions to the problem. It’s always better to add momentum and diversity of thought to an existing movement than to start a movement of your own.

Connect with communities. The people who are closest to the problems are most aware of what the solutions are and should be. When solving social problems, it’s important to work with individuals who are most affected. What do they want? How do they talk about the issues affecting them?

Seek out advisors. There is safety in numbers, particularly when it comes to the numbers of advisors who can help you avoid “landmines.” There are countless people in our lives who’ve succeeded and failed, and who are willing to offer lessons learned about their experiences. Experience isn’t always the best teacher. Teachers and advisors are!

Build sustainable networks. In her TED talk, Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, draws the distinction between current-day protests and the civil rights movement. The latter took years of planning and organizing, with attention to building communications networks and lasting relationships. Sustainable movements require a commitment to slow and steady organizing and collaborative networks, and not just a rapid assembly of people who are following a hashtag.

Focus relentlessly on data. Sustainable movements answer the “So what?” question with data. What effect will you have, and how can it be measured? Giving attention to metrics and piloting solutions while capturing and sharing data are key to building financial, human and institutional support.

Mentor your successor(s). Many movements rise on the charisma of a singular leader. But these same movements fail when that leader leaves or is removed, for whatever reason. Lasting social change initiatives invest in training and mentoring future leaders.

Social justice matters, for the sustainability of life on this planet and for the healthy development of human civilization. By taking a few steps and asking particular questions, social justice can be viewed through the lens of any career field.

Engineers can create the world we want to live in. In fact, it is up to them, and countless others who are trained to think critically and solve problems, to name injustice, to strategize and to develop informed, thoughtful alternatives. See yourself as an influencer who can catalyze change. Our world depends on it.