Scarce resource: Millard McElwee, a PhD student at UC Berkeley, aims to become one of America’s relatively few Black engineering professors. Credit: Ken Andreyo

Millard McElwee was 12 years old when Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana. Having evacuated to the relative safety of Shreveport before the storm hit, McElwee at first didn’t realize the enormity of the catastrophe. But as his family drove back to their suburban New Orleans home, the carnage was unmistakable. Trees were down. Towns all along Interstate 55 were in blackouts. Even Baton Rouge appeared to have no power. “It’s still something I vividly remember,” McElwee said of the outages. “You could tell the difference, even in the cities during the day.”

Check out the complete 2020 Washington Monthly rankings here.

While McElwee’s own home was without electricity for a month, he was still lucky: Located north of the city, his house hadn’t flooded. Many of his relatives, who lived in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward and Metairie, weren’t so fortunate. Some moved in with McElwee temporarily. At one point, his family’s two-bedroom house and office trailer hosted 13 people. They depended on canned water and National Guard–issued ready-to-eat meals, or MREs.

“It was nasty,” McElwee said of the meals, which are used by the Department of Defense to sustain troops in combat. He chuckled. “It was nasty back then when they gave it to us. It was nasty years later when we tried it again to see if it would get any better.”

Eating the foul-tasting MREs is one of McElwee’s most striking Katrina memories. But it’s hardly the only facet of the storm that left a lasting impression. McElwee remembers engineering experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, coming to the city to assess what had gone wrong. He recalls talking with his father about why the levees and the Army Corps of Engineers had failed so badly. It gave him a new goal: to become an engineer himself so he could better protect people from catastrophes. 

After the storm, McElwee dedicated himself to his classes, becoming a straight-A student. He began looking at the engineering programs of various universities. He visited MIT’s website daily. Doing so helped him find the school’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science program—a renowned and selective academic camp for teenagers from underrepresented communities. McElwee, who is Black, attended, and then went on to study civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Now he is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he works on quantifying how natural disasters impact communities of color. 

“Natural disasters don’t discriminate,” McElwee, now 27, explained. “But we do know there are disparities in the responses and reaction times.” His job is to figure out how large the disparities are and why they exist. To that end, in 2019, McElwee built a mathematical model that predicts how floods impact travel times in New Orleans. It’s the first to explore the reasons these times go up more for minorities. One explanation for the discrepancy, he found, is that marginalized groups typically have to travel farther for work. But another is that the infrastructure in their neighborhoods is more vulnerable, and once it’s damaged, authorities are slower to fix it. Minorities “typically live in communities that haven’t had as much investment in terms of recovery of the network,” McElwee told me. “Previous natural disasters have shown that these areas are usually not serviced as quickly.”

McElwee’s work fits into a broader trend among Black people in STEM fields. According to experts, scientists of color are more likely than their white peers to work on problems with a clear relationship to issues of equity. “There have been several studies that have shown that Black students in particular, and students of color more broadly, tend to pursue careers that are going to allow them to have some sort of social justice orientation,” said Tia Madkins, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin. In a 2015 study of 2,697 undergraduate STEM students, more than 50 percent of under-represented students of color said working for social change was either “essential” or “very important” to their career goals. For others, the figure was just 37 percent.

But, unfortunately, there aren’t many Black students in the STEM fields. Black people are 12 percent of the U.S. population and 13.3 percent of its undergraduates. Yet in recent years, they have received just 4.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in math, 4.5 percent of those awarded in computer science, 4 percent of those awarded in civil engineering, 3.7 percent of those awarded in chemical engineering, and 3.1 percent of those awarded in mechanical engineering—percentages that have barely changed over time. Among graduate students, the disparities are similarly dramatic. Black Americans, for example, make up just 4 percent of all doctorates awarded in engineering fields.

STEM majors earn more than most other majors, and the dearth of Black students in these disciplines is part of why Black college graduates on the whole make so much less than their white counterparts. (Though it’s certainly not the only reason; Black STEM graduates earn less than white ones in the same industries.) It has led many academics to explore why so few Black students study technical subjects. The answer is complex, with structural causes that can date back to elementary school. But according to interviews with multiple Black academics, it’s about far more than just K–12 education. Black students’ disproportionate interest in social justice and the absence of Black STEM majors are causally related. In their courses and jobs, most STEM faculty and employers do not make social change a focus. And for many Black students, that’s a serious problem.

“There is strong professional and personal dissonance that makes it difficult for them to stay in STEM fields,” said Ebony McGee, a professor at Vanderbilt University who researches Black students’ professional motivations. These students are leaving the sciences, she told me, “not because they cannot do the work but because they cannot see themselves in traditional STEM fields.” McElwee, in other words, is an outlier in engineering not just because of his skin color. He’s an outlier in engineering because of his research.

That’s unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is that some of the greatest injustices in American society need technical solutions. Building offices and apartments that are greener will require clever engineering. To make online education more effective, especially for communities that lack reliable internet access, the U.S. will need socially minded computer scientists. Fixing health care inequities demands better medical expertise and technology.

But distressing as it may be, the current tendency for STEM academics to ignore social justice presents a major opportunity. If Black STEM students are disproportionately interested in using their degrees to make the world more equitable and fair, then STEM departments can attract and retain more Black students by making these themes central to their curriculums. Doing so will have two sets of benefits: It will help Black people enter well-paying professions, and it will help create a corps of scientists and engineers focused on making a more just planet.

If you look at a list of the most popular majors for Black students, disciplines associated with public service are on top. More than 26 percent of recent health and medical administration graduates are Black, nearly double the national average. In social work and sociology, the numbers are 22 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively. In criminal justice, 20 percent of recent graduates are Black. 

These are all extraordinarily important fields of study. At some colleges, they can even pay well right after graduating (see “Colleges Where Majors Popular with Black Students Pay Well”). But these are the exceptions. Overwhelmingly, majors with explicit social justice upsides pay considerably less than STEM. It’s a fact that reflects poorly on the United States, which chronically undervalues professions dedicated to helping others. 

But it’s a fact nonetheless, and one that makes researchers concerned about the future earnings of young Black Americans. “[College] might be the only opportunity there is for them to enter the middle class,” Nicole Smith, the chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told me. While students should be free to pick their own areas of study, Smith said, it’s especially important for people of color to consider their career prospects when deciding. “Your very first job is a platform from which all of your other wages will be determined,” she said.

In explaining why so few Black students study STEM, Smith—like many other education experts—honed in on America’s segregated K–12 education system. It’s easy to see why. Institutionalized racism has shut Black Americans out of neighborhoods with high-performing schools and funneled them into districts with fewer monetary and academic resources. As a result, many Black students arrive at college without the math and science skills needed to pursue advanced STEM classes. “It’s a done deal,” Smith told me.

But while the pipeline problem, as it’s often called in policy circles, is real, it cannot by itself explain the disparity. In a 2019 study of racial gaps in STEM, three researchers followed the academic trajectories of more than 5,000 Black, Latino, and white American college students. They compared Black students, Latino students, and white students who had similar levels of academic preparation, had similar financial backgrounds, and were alike in all manner of other ways—from their parents’ education levels to their SAT scores. They found that Black STEM students were 14 percentage points more likely to switch out of STEM than white students from similar circumstances, and 15 percentage points more likely to drop out of school altogether. Latino STEM students were 14 percentage points more likely to drop out of college than similarly positioned white ones. (Notably, this pattern wasn’t present in non-STEM fields.)

“This was not a transfer and dropping-out pattern that we found among students who were underprepared,” said Yasmiyn Irizarry, a quantitative sociologist at UT Austin and one of the paper’s authors. “This was among students that were equally prepared.”

So what else is at play? Many academics cite the chronically low number of Black faculty in technical fields. It’s a compelling explanation. Research suggests that the lack of Black STEM academics means that many Black STEM students struggle to envision themselves progressing in their disciplines. One 2019 study by a collection of psychology professors and STEM researchers found that Black female STEM students were far more likely to experience feelings of belonging with Black professors than with white ones. Indeed, many Black female STEM students at largely white institutions told the surveyors they had no mentors. This has very tangible consequences. Research shows that students of color perform better on tests when faculty of color are present, and there’s a positive correlation between the number of minority faculty at a school and the likelihood that its students of color persist. 

When I spoke to Black STEM graduates who attended predominantly white schools, several said they might have left had it not been for the support of Black faculty. Raheem Beyah, for example, Georgia Institute of Technology’s vice president for interdisciplinary research and an electrical engineering professor, partially credited his success to the mentorship of Gary May, a Black engineer famous both for his work on computer-aided manufacturing and for his efforts to bring minority students into STEM fields. Beyah tries to pay it forward. “When students come into my office, I know what their concerns are, because I had the same concerns,” he said.

Indeed, simply seeing other, more advanced Black students can make an impact. Tahira Reid-Smith, an engineering professor at Purdue University, decided to study mechanical engineering on the recommendation of an older Black classmate. She opted to become an academic after watching several other Black students in her Bible study group do so. “It was implicitly inspiring,” she said.

It’s therefore not surprising that historically Black colleges and universities are the biggest producers of Black engineers and scientists. A full 27 percent of Black students with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields went to HBCUs. Several of these schools have particularly excellent track records of graduating students into high-paying jobs. According to a Washington Monthly analysis of new program-level data offered by the Department of Education, for example, Tuskegee University’s mechanical engineering graduates have a median income of $65,300 in their first year after graduating, which exceeds the median first-year income for all mechanical engineering graduates by roughly $3,000. Its chemical engineering graduates have a median income of $67,200—also well above average.

But while it’s critical that schools hire more Black STEM faculty and build communities of Black students, it still won’t be enough. Even with an aggressive push, reaching racial parity in STEM departments will take time—particularly for tenured positions, where turnover is especially slow. And while many Black faculty and older students enjoy mentoring, the process places a large, unpaid service burden on people who are already overstretched.

“I don’t think this is about patching Black students to Black faculty,” said Irizarry. Instead, she told me, STEM departments in general—and their white professors in particular—need to think hard about why so many students of color are leaving. “A commitment to self-reflection is what is lacking.”

When it comes to race, STEM professors have much to reflect on. Departments can stereotype some Black students as underprepared despite evidence to the contrary. They can make others feel that they owe any success to affirmative action. There are plenty of reasons why highly qualified students of color feel unwelcome in technical fields. 

But one of the most overlooked is the focus of the STEM community itself—and its disconnect from the lived experiences of Black students. Surveys suggest that STEM professors and professionals tend to be interested in having students acquire technical expertise for its own sake, or in order to make money and promote America’s geopolitical advantage. Black students, disproportionately familiar with the many injustices in American society, tend to be more interested in acquiring technical expertise to effect social change. 

“The people who are in most STEM programs and run most STEM organizations are not from those same backgrounds and do not have those same kinds of concerns,” Irizarry told me. Their teaching, she said, can lead many Black students to feel lost or unwelcome. 

That can be true for everyone from freshmen to nearly complete PhDs. McElwee, for example, told me that both he and other Black, socially minded engineering students encounter pushback against their work. “I’ve had some Caucasian advisers or have heard of other Caucasian advisers saying, ‘Is this really important? How is this technical?’ Which is sometimes a little bit discouraging, because in addition to championing our own research, we have to defend these things being worth studying.”

But the worthiness should be evident, because the applications are everywhere. The city of Flint used a machine-learning algorithm to find lead-tainted water pipes. After Michael Brown’s shooting in 2014, three Black teenagers built an app that lets people rate their individual interactions with the police. Academic engineers are at the forefront of figuring out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps the most technically challenging and politically urgent problem on the planet. This work helps the underserved in particular, but it also helps people in general. Everyone will in some way have to contend with the consequences of a dangerously changing environment.

Indeed, the upsides of socially conscious, diverse STEM grads should be apparent to even aggressive for-profits. Electric car sales are rising, and with better technology, consultancy firms believe that such vehicles will become extremely lucrative for auto manufacturers—while also helping fight climate change. Skin care companies could tap into a bigger market if they hired Black chemists who have thought at length about how cosmetics impact darker tones. Reid-Smith of Purdue got funding from Procter & Gamble to investigate how women can more effectively style curly hair. 

“A lot of women have gone natural, which means [they’ve] stopped putting chemical relaxers in their hair to permanently straighten their hair,” she explained. Instead, many have turned to blow dryers and flat irons to adjust patterning. But using too much heat can also permanently change hair patterns in unwanted ways. “There’s thousands and thousands of women trying to do tutorials on how to prevent heat damage, and I’m like, ‘You know, mechanical engineers study heat transfer. This would be an interesting, fun project to work on at a research level.’ ” 

Much of Reid-Smith’s career is an example of how the hard sciences can be used to make the world a better place. She works, for example, to examine how engineers and scientists can be more compassionate in the design of products and machines, including in the health care field.

“One need not be in a nonprofit to motivate social justice concerns,” Irizarry said. “An engineering firm that has a diverse group of engineers will be a lot more creative in how they think about the infrastructure of a particular community, which can improve social justice concerns while getting contracts and getting paid.”

It is, of course, unfair to make Black academics and professionals responsible for getting the STEM community to care about justice. Their white counterparts need to also see why these topics are important for the world—and why bringing more people of color into STEM fields is itself critical to making the U.S. more equitable. And one upside of having more socially conscious STEM curriculums is that all incoming students, not just Black ones, will be more exposed to the progressive applications of their subjects. The U.S. needs more engineers, mathematicians, and scientists of all backgrounds to focus on tackling problems like gun violence and environmental disasters. If STEM teachers and colleagues emphasize such issues, that’s more likely to happen.

But for now, many Black researchers are leading the charge. McElwee’s ultimate career goal, becoming a professor himself, is motivated by a desire to serve his community and bring more people like him into engineering. “I’ve yet to have an African American science, technology, or math professor at Carnegie Mellon or Berkeley,” he said. “I want to be part of the solution.” To that end, he’s taught for the last several years at Carnegie Mellon’s free summer STEM program for underrepresented high school students—the Summer Academy for Math and Science (SAMS)—an analog of the one he attended at MIT. He described it as the “excitement of his year.”

Much of his teaching is focused on showing students that STEM is fun. His pupils build popsicle stick bridges that can support hundreds of pounds and design pinball machines. But he also brings up themes of social justice. In one class, McElwee had students look at the effects of natural disasters, much as he does. That included talking about how they impact people of color. “The overall course was looking at various types of disasters, but also making them aware that there’s a ton of literature out here about communities that are disproportionately affected,” he said. “Even in the SAMS program, I try to distill those nuggets.”

Daniel Block

Daniel Block is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs and a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly. Follow him on Twitter @DBlock94