'Changing the Face of Engineering'

Editor discusses new book about the history of and outlook for African-American engineers.

January 25, 2016

“From the time of their arrival in America,” writes John Slaughter in the introduction to Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience (Johns Hopkins University Press), “African-American men and women have contributed significantly to the creation and development of many of the tools, machines and devices that have propelled America’s industrial progress and technological achievements.” They have been, in a word, engineers.

The book, which Slaughter edited alongside Yu Tao, director of gender and cultural studies at Stevens Institute of Technology, and Willie Pearson, professor of sociology at Georgia Institute of Technology, is a comprehensive history of African-Americans working in the field of engineering and an argument that their continued underrepresentation puts the country at a severe disadvantage. It comprises 15 chapters by a variety of scholars writing from their own unique perspectives.

Slaughter responded via email to questions about the book. He is a former director of the National Science Foundation and a professor of education and engineering at the University of Southern California.

Q: Can you describe the origins of the late-1960s efforts to bring more African-Americans into the engineering field and where those efforts stand today?

A: What came to be known as the Minority Engineering Effort began with a symposium held at the National Academy of Engineering in 1973. It was the result of actions led by Percy Pierre, dean of engineering at Howard University, with support from industry, notably GE. After the symposium, Dr. Pierre was successful in convincing the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to make a major, several-year financial commitment, and with leadership from major corporate CEOs and university presidents the effort was launched. At the time, the number of African-American baccalaureate engineering graduates was in the neighborhood of 1 percent of the total and most of them were graduates of historically black colleges and universities. More recent data show that the percentage of African-American bachelor’s degree engineering graduates peaked at 5.6 percent in 2000 and has dropped to slightly below 4 percent in 2013. Improving retention to graduation has to be a key priority to improve these statistics.

Q: A chapter near the end of the book notes that "the lack of diversity among the U.S. engineering workforce poses a significant threat to our nation's ability to maintain an innovative edge in an increasingly competitive world." Can you talk briefly about why?

A: In the foreword to the book, Shirley Ann Jackson [president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], wrote about the “quiet crisis,” an expression she coined to refer to the fact that the need for engineers is at an all-time high while our production of engineering graduates has declined. Other nations, even developing ones, are producing more engineers than we are and are creating scientific and technological infrastructures that allow them to compete effectively with U.S. in the global competition for science and technology leadership. In order to increase the number of engineering graduates, we must ensure that more women and underrepresented minorities are encouraged to prepare themselves with the math and science skills needed for admission to an engineering education. The demographic changes in our nation’s population clearly indicate that we are becoming more diverse, and that diversity must be reflected in all professions, including science and engineering. Diversity drives innovation; creativity is unleashed in an environment rich with ideas and experiences of a diverse group of individuals.

Q: Right at the very beginning of the book, you note that "too often [African-American] inventions and scientific discoveries were neither recognized nor valued." Can you highlight one or two examples of this that stand out to you?

A: Throughout history, African-Americans have provided noteworthy inventions and products that have made our lives safer, healthier and more comfortable. They include, among many others, Elijah McCoy (1843-1929), the inventor of the automatic lubricator for oiling locomotives, [who was] credited by some with being the person identified by the expression “The Real McCoy”; Granville T. Woods (1856-1910), the “black Edison,” who invented devices to improve electric railway cars and for controlling the flow of electricity as well as a steam boiler furnace, an automatic air brake and multiplex telegraphy; and Garrett Morgan (1875-1963), inventor of the three-way traffic light and the gas mask. More recent examples include Mark Dean, holder of three of the original nine patents for the IBM PC and Gilda Barabino, dean of the Grove School of Engineering of the City College of City University of New York, who also heads a biomedical engineering laboratory that is a leader in research on sickle cell anemia and cellular and tissue engineering.

Q: Similarly, this book approaches this topic from a variety of angles using everything from data analysis to personal anecdotes and in-depth interviews. Can you highlight one or two revelations you feel are particularly vital or important to recognize?

A: The one message that many of the authors make very clearly is the importance of a diverse faculty, and for African-American students, the presence of African-American faculty. These faculty members serve as role models and help create an affirming environment that facilitates success for African-American students. The percentage of African-American engineering faculty in predominantly white colleges and universities is approximately 2 percent and has not improved significantly over the past decade. The paucity of African-American faculty is a major reason that there are so few African-American students entering doctoral programs in engineering.

Q: Presumably written well before Justice Antonin Scalia specifically raised the idea of "mismatch" theory during oral arguments for a recent affirmative action case, the last chapter of this book also mentions those ideas in the context of prescribing "disaggregated accountability." Can you talk about what that is and what, if any, light this book can shed on the mismatch debate?

A: Accountability for improving opportunities and success of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering education should exist at various levels in a higher educational institution. Presidents, provosts, deans and faculty members all should be held accountable for ensuring an environment of equity and inclusion for all students. No single person or office is solely accountable. Several of the chapters in the book make it very clear that success for students, especially those who have been marginalized or historically underrepresented, depends to a large extent on the presence of a climate of affirmation and support throughout the institution.

Q: Lastly, what do you hope readers take away from this book?

A: We want readers to understand that in spite of a history of exclusion and barriers to engineering education and careers, African-Americans have made significant contributions to the technological capacity of the U.S. Furthermore, we wish to encourage African-American youth to prepare themselves for the immense opportunities that an engineering education and career can afford. We want educational leaders to assess their engineering programs to make certain that they are equitable and inclusive for all students. And for those corporate readers, we want them to examine their organizations to ensure that a level playing field exists for recruiting, hiring, developing and promoting their engineering employees, regardless of race, gender or other defining characteristics.


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