The Colloquy began the second full day with a talk by James Stith, former Vice President of the American Institute of Physics. Stith reflected on his career as a Black physicist who began as the child of a single mother with a third-grade education who was told that he would “never amount to anything.” He has taught physics at West Point and at the Ohio State University, and said that for his entire career he has been working on replacing himself. He believes that minority groups should be represented in the STEM professions proportional to their representation in the general population.
Stith explained that, since physics is usually the last science course students take in high school, he uses it as a bellwether for college readiness to enter STEM. In 1948 just over 25 percent of all US high school students had taken a physics course, in 2009 it was 36 percent (Figure 2).
FIGURE 2. Physics enrollment in US high schools, 1948-2009. Data show percent of seniors who have taken at least one physics course prior to graduation.
SOURCE: 1987-current data were retrieved from American Institute of Physics (www.aip.org/statistics); data prior to 1987 were retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics (NCES; http://nces.ed.gov/).
However, he noted that, although the percentage and numbers of students who have taken a high school physics course have increased across all ethnicities and races over the past 25 years, there has not been similar growth for minorities who pursue physics at the undergraduate level: in 1996, roughly 6 percent (166 majors/year) of all physics baccalaureate recipients were African American; in 2007, it was less than 3 percent (144 majors/year) (Figure 3). The drop in percentage is due to both an increase in the total number of undergraduate physics degrees obtained by students of any race or ethnicity and a real decrease in the number of African American males attaining these degrees.
FIGURE 3. Percent of physics bachelor’s (US citizens only) who were African American, classes 1996 through 2007.
SOURCE: American Institute of Physics (www.aip.org/statistics).
According to Stith, most African American physics PhD recipients used to receive their doctoral degrees from one of 34 historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs), which graduated roughly 60% of the African American baccalaureates in physics (Box 1). But because of program closures, only four HBCUs—Howard University, Hampton, Florida A&M, and Alabama A&M—now produce the majority of African American physics PhDs from all institutions. Stith found this change particularly troubling because only about 13% of African Americans currently attend any of the 110 HBCUs for their undergraduate education.
In conclusion, Stith stated that the continuous encouragement of minority students and their access to high-caliber teachers and faculty are two crucial factors needed for minority males to be successful in STEM studies and careers.
Box 1: Universities That Awarded the Most Physics PhDs to African Americans since 1998
Physics departments in these twelve universities awarded more than 65 percent of all physics PhDs degrees earned by African Americans since 1998.
- Alabama A&M University
- Cornell University*
- Florida A&M University
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- Hampton University
- Howard University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- North Carolina State University
- Stanford University*
- University of Alabama at Birmingham
- University of California at San Diego
- University of Michigan*
* Denotes universities that have two departments that award physics PhDs. The universities on this list reported conferring three or more physics PhDs to African Americans between 1998 and 2007.
Source: American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center, Enrollment & Degree.