Megacommunities Bridge Minority STEM Gap


WASHINGTON (NNPA) – In an effort to address persistent, racial disparities in science and engineering careers, educators and community stakeholders have embraced the "megacommunity" model of cooperation.

The megacommunity model is a tri-sector approach to solving hard, real world problems through active collaborations involving non-profit groups, government agencies and businesses. From battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India, to preserving rain forests in South America, to revitalizing neighborhoods in Harlem through economic development, leaders around the globe have utilized the megacommunity model.

"You have to have collaboration across the private sector, the public sector and non-profits working together to solve these problems if you want the solution to be sustainable," said Reginald Van Lee, a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington D.C. "We discovered if one of those sectors is left out of fixing the problem, eventually that will sabotage the solution and it won't be sustainable."

Van Lee, who co-wrote a book on megacommunities, shared his thoughts on the unique problem-solving approach at a recent health care symposium at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Van Lee said that effective megacommunities must be inclusive, adaptable, tech savvy, feature tri-sector engagement, foster talent and focus on long-term solutions.

Getting more minorities into STEM careers will become increasingly important as the workforce becomes more diverse and job growth in STEM-related fields continues to outpace the job growth in other sectors.

According to a recent study on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies,

"From the post-World War II era through 2009, the S&E (science and engineering) workforce has grown from 182,000 in 1950 to 5.4 million." Over the past decade, job growth in the technology sector has outpaced growth in other sectors, according to the Joint Center study.

"This trend is expected to continue, as it is in all fields most dependent on STEM-prepared workers," stated the study. "Through 2018, job growth in these sectors is expected to outpace job growth in fields less dependent on STEM-prepared workers."

The report continued: "While the latter set of jobs is expected to grow at a rate of 9.8 percent through the next five years, the jobs most dependent on STEM workers are expected to grow at a rate of 17 percent during the same period."

The Joint Center reported that "17 percent of employed African Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree in a STEM-related field" compared to 22 percent of Whites in the same age group that hold similar degrees.

Yet, Blacks hold less than 4 percent of all science and engineering jobs, and Whites occupy nearly 72 percent of all science and engineering jobs. While the Black unemployment rate is 12.4 percent, according to the most recent jobs report by the Labor Department, the jobless rate in computer and math jobs is 3.3 percent, less than half of the national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent.

In November 2013, Van Lee and other stakeholders challenged a mixed group of health care providers to develop megacommunities to address racial disparities in STEM careers and health care and to raise awareness about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare."

Lynne M. Holden, a board-certified Emergency Medicine doctor at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y., said that she had never heard of megacommunities before the November health care summit.

Holden's group included a Howard University graduate who works for NASA as an instrument manager and aerospace engineer, the liaison to the Howard University Academic Community at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, a professor and board-certified clinical pharmacist specialist of Howard University School of Pharmacy, and a director from the Maryland Department of Health.

Holden's group met with students, educators, and parents and found that the number one reason that minority students did not pursue science and math careers was a lack of confidence. "Either they were told they could not do it or they believed in themselves that they couldn't do it," said Holden. Parents said that a lack of resources and a lack of confidence in their children drove them away from encouraging their children to pursue STEM careers.

Holden's megacommunity built on the infrastructure of a non-profit Holden co-founded in 2006 called "Mentoring In Medicine," an organization that encourages, inspires and educates students about careers in science. Holden's group organized a Twitter party to engage students about STEM careers and utilized other partnerships to help students create computer-animated public service announcements on the Affordable Care Act.

"We always teach our students that they are community health care ambassadors and that their job is to save a life," said Holden. "They may not know how to suture or do complicated medical surgeries, but their words and their actions can help save a life."

Herbert C. Buchanan Jr., CEO of Howard University Hospital, said that many students have the kind of capability and aptitude to excel in STEM fields but they are not encouraged mostly because of their circumstances. "Without reaching out to the students and parents, without creating an environment where the [students] can be successful, without schools that are committed, we won't significantly improve," said Buchanan.

Buchanan said the success of the megacommunities has to be felt in the urban neighborhoods that they serve and has to be measured over time. "Whether that's more people going to see a physician, more people accessing insurance, having better relationships with their primary care providers or just being more educated, some of those things are intangible and harder to measure," said Buchanan.

Those intangibles will be just as important when it comes to measuring the success of the megacommunity on decreasing health care disparities and the minority STEM pipeline. Buchanan said that the magic of the megacommunity model is the ability to foster those nurturing environments to create opportunities where stakeholders can share in the rewards from those investments in our future.

"So, if a parent says, 'I'm interested, but the programs aren't offered at the school or transportation is an issue or the opportunity is at a private school and I can't afford it,' there are resources to address those needs," said Buchanan.

"The megacommunity allows you to bring all of those things to the table and say, 'what do you want to accomplish and identify members that can fill those gaps.

We all need future doctors and nurses and engineers, and we're going all the way over to India and Africa and we're having those kids come over to our schools."

Making those investments in education at home and tapping resources found domestically is a much better long-term solution to the problem and a win-win-win for public, private and non-profit groups, said Buchanan. "The fact is that whether we're talking about whether someone lives or dies, whether we're talking about whether we can find a cure for cancer, whether we're talking about whether we can protect our country, whether we're talking about what do with the environment and global warming even when we're talking about our quality of life everyday there is some connection to what we call 'STEM,'" said Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who also chairs President Barack Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. "If you're going to be really good at STEM you have to be really good at the other subjects, too."

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Megacommunities Bridge Minority STEM Gap

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