Saturday, December 6, 2008

NSF-AAAS Student Research Conference Underlines the Importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

John Haynes, Professor and Dean of Science and Mathematics at Morehouse College, Atlanta
Credit: Photos by Sidney Perkowitz

December 5, 2008
ATLANTA, Georgia-Historically black colleges and universities play a significant-but often unrecognized-role in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education of minority students in the United States, producing scientists and engineers ready to apply their education to the important problems of the day. These messages were strongly delivered by students and educators at the National Science Foundation's 2008 Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program Research Conference, organized by the AAAS.

In 2004 nearly half-49%-of bachelor's degrees in physics and 39% in chemistry awarded to African-Americans came from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), according to a recent report by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology and the American Institute of Physics. One well-known HBCU, Morehouse College in Atlanta, graduates more bachelor's degrees in science per year than some countries, said John K. Haynes, professor and Morehouse's dean of Science and Mathematics, who spoke at the conference.

According to Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS: "We must invest in development of talent and potential for science and engineering. HBCUs provide access to many students and introduce them to the possibilities of education and careers in STEM." HBCUs, she said, "contribute disproportionately as the baccalaureate origins institutions in many fields that are crucial to U.S. competitiveness and national security."

Much of the research described by HBCU undergraduates at the event directly addresses pressing national needs. For example, a poster headlined "Preparation of Biodiesel from Waste Oil" presented by Ashley White, a junior chemistry major at Jackson State University, Mississippi. Asked why the work is important, she responded: "Because we need cheaper gas! And we need to stop depending on foreign oil. We can do this ourselves." She went on to describe the chemistry involved in converting discarded vegetable oil used for cooking into diesel fuel. The quality of the fuel is acceptable, she added, but the process needs to be improved for greater yield.

Another poster described research in steganography, an area that turns out to be important for national security. The poster's presenter, Kevin Harris, a junior applied math major at North Carolina A&T State University, defined steganography as "disguising information without arousing suspicion." One virtually undetectable method is to encode a message within a digital graphics file by tweaking the data bits in a way that leaves the image unaltered. While this sounds like something out of a James Bond movie, Harris cited a recent FBI White Paper on the subject that shows its seriousness in an age of terrorism.

These two posters were among some 275 student poster presentations and over 100 talks at the four-day HBCU-UP conference, held 23-26 October in Atlanta. The presentations covered virtually every major field of science and technology, with cash awards offered for the best research as chosen by a panel of experts. This is the second year under a three-year NSF grant that the AAAS has organized a student-oriented event with the atmosphere and format of a full-scale scientific conference, this year with over 800 attendees. The conference featured student research abstracts in a glossy program book and gave the students opportunities to explore offerings from various graduate schools and employers.

The student activities were supplemented by workshops, and plenary talks from some of the leading players in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at HBCUs. James H. Wyche, director of the NSF Division of Human Resource Development, Directorate for Education and Human Resources, spoke of the significance of STEM education for global competitiveness and noted the importance of key "transit points" in keeping potential and current HBCU science students on track toward their careers, such as the transition from 11th to 12th grade.

Haynes, in his plenary address, emphasized the excitement of today's forefront science and the importance of a research experience in undergraduate science education. Carlton E. Brown, president of Clark Atlanta University, another major HBCU, reported large numbers enrolled in STEM courses at his institution but noted that graduation rates are lower than desired. He said raising the number and skills of qualified middle- and high school science teachers would be crucial for improving university-level graduation rates in those fields.

In a later conversation, Haynes placed HBCU training within the framework of a national commitment to STEM education. "The country realizes it's got to tap all of its resources," he said. "Other countries are producing many more students in science. The question is whether we have the national will. The next president has to send a clear message to the country that all of its citizens should receive quality education." As a critical factor, Haynes added, that should include pre-college education.

For some students, the conference gave an opportunity to reflect on their HBCU experience along with their research. Jasmine Greene, a sophomore biology major at Lemoyne-Owen College, Memphis, Tennessee, presented work on the interaction between chromium metal ions and the neurotransmitter aspartate. Even trace amounts of certain metallic elements can impair human neural behavior. Greene's project is the first to examine possible harmful effects from chromium. The results will be submitted to the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
When asked about the pros and cons of attending a historically black college compared to a school with a diverse population, Greene responded that while she strongly favors diversity, an HBCU offers "a family bond."

"The teachers really care," she said. "I'm not just a number."

Justin Morrissette, a graduating senior in chemical engineering at Hampton University in Virginia, gave a different response to the question. Morrissette studied viral infections of bacteria in the Pacific Ocean, which could have consequences for the prevalence of plankton and the food chain that it supports. He carried out his research partly at institutions that are not HBCUs; for him, the most important thing in choosing where to learn and work was to follow the science.

The buzz of activity around the student presentations was matched by the buzz of activity around the conference exhibits. Over 80 exhibitors and recruiters, mostly representing graduate schools across the United States but also from employers such as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, illustrated that the pool of HBCU undergraduates is indeed a valued resource for further STEM education and jobs.
For all the activity and student enthusiasm, however, the current economic downturn could potentially alter federal and other funding for science education including HBCUs and their supporting programs. Some HBCUs suffer from lack of the resources needed to provide complete student research experiences. Bad economic news may trigger other problems because "many of these students need financial help to go [to college]," said Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. "Many of the students come from rural areas--first-generation college students."

Added Malcom: "We can anticipate tough budget years ahead for R&D, to the extent that these can be considered a 'nice to have' rather than a 'must have.' If, however, R&D become necessities or, better still, investments, we can make a case for support even in tough times."
Haynes sounded perhaps the most optimistic note of all. Even in the face of financial difficulties, he said, we should realize that "global awareness is where we're going so internationalizing the experience of students is the next new frontier... We have to get young people out of [provincialism] to see there's a wide world with opportunities."

See the full list of young researchers who won awards for oral and poster presentations at the National Science Foundation's HBCU-UP conference in Atlanta.
Learn more about the NSF's Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program.
More images from the Conference

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of $6.06 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to over 1,900 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 45,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes over 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.


rawdawgbuffalo said...

hope u were not in my city and aint call jones

The Urban Scientist said...

I wasn't. haven't been down to A-town in a LONG time.

thanks for the love, though.