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Recently, US Black Engineer magazine spoke to Stephanie Turner, vice president of inclusion, diversity, and social innovation with MITRE. During the Zoom interview, we discussed a new report released in the summer of 2022 focused on the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

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The HBCU Innovation: Outsized Contributions for Black Progress in Engineering Research and Education report “documents the HBCUs’ significant outsized contributions and strong value proposition for serving the needs of Black students in STEM fields and meeting the evolving, increasing talent challenges and emerging technologies needs for our nation.” The analysis in this report validates the relevancy of the 15 ABET-accredited HBCU Schools of Engineering to address our nation’s STEM challenges and contribute to advancing leading areas of disruptive technologies of importance to industry.

USBE: There have been lots of studies done on HBCUs. Not as many as there should be, but why did you want to do this study, and why now? 

Stephanie E Turner: This started back in 2019. Before I was even hired at MITRE, our mission is to make the world safer, and MITRE likes to think big about how we can truly have a social impact. We know many of us will volunteer to give back, whether at an individual or organizational level. And here was an opportunity to do something first to promote the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and value them as a national treasure.

The 15 ABET-accredited engineering schools have been overproducing as we continue to talk about STEM and the lack of supply in meeting the demand that’s been going on, probably before I was born. So, what can we do as MITRE to be the convener of like-minded organizations to have what we call a big impact? Where is it going to help society? It may not happen during our life, but we want to cultivate and nurture and plant the seeds so that, hopefully, in the next generation, the next level of talent will be in a better place and viable.

We know that STEM is foundational to all we do, regardless of what you decide to do in your career. You will need acumen in math, reading, and science. And so, it was an idea; we didn’t know where it was going. I joined MITRE in March 2020, and it’s taken a lot of different avenues. And that’s part of innovation. You can brainstorm, and you can collaborate. You can have a good idea, but you must address the immediate needs or issues and make some decisions.

COVID turned everything upside down in terms of our original plan of going to the schools, doing site visits, having CEOs meet with the Deans of the schools, and trying to be more collaborative where it wasn’t a one-way where we’re just going to go to a school and hire the talent, and that’s it. We need to understand better the lived experience of the students at HBCUs and the history of these schools. Why do they exist, and what have they been able to produce?

USBE: We know that HBCUs with ABET-accredited engineering schools produce at least 33% of all Black engineers in the United States. Did the study find that there was a possibility to do more? What did the study find in addition to what we already know? 

Stephanie E Turner: Well, many people don’t know that. And so that’s part of the problem. I’m a product of an HBCU for my undergraduate work. And the fact that we’re talking about fifteen schools. When you compare it to predominantly white institutions that are almost triple the number of the 15 HBCUs and what they can produce, it doesn’t compare in the light of just fifteen underfunded schools. Still, they’re overproducing.

So that’s the number one fact and the fact that their curriculum is said, in corporations, that it’s not on par with the predominantly white institutions. This is why companies don’t want to hire. It’s because they don’t even know what these schools are. A lot of them have never heard of HBCUs. So why would I want to go there and recruit? And so, some of us know the legacy, the history of HBCUs. My parents and grandparents have all gone to HBCU undergraduate and graduate schools and have done very well in life. But we’re a small population compared to society at large. And part of it was to put the spotlight on and recognize and celebrate what these schools have been able to do despite all the inequities still in play today.

So that’s one part. The other is the lack of funding through grants, donations, or scholarships; whether you’re a private or public school, it’s the laboratories, the research, and the equipment. If you can’t get top-of-the-line equipment and relevant research, you’re not going to attract the faculty; you’re not going to attract students. And usually, you’re serving students who are at the lower income strata. So, you keep compiling all these inequities, and still, they can nurture and graduate their students.

The third component is the whole ecosystem of being at an HBCU. For someone like me, I could have gone anywhere in the country, gone to a sister school, or Ivy League. I chose to go to an HBCU because of that cultural experience. There wasn’t anyone like me in school growing up. I never had a Black teacher and didn’t have Black friends. I was in a majority Jewish population.

Some of us go to these schools because we know the academics are great. It’s also the cultural experience that was talked about in the report, where you will have people who understand where you come from or your history. That’s not taught in schools where we all went. There’s a chart about Black students who go to predominantly white institutions versus those who go to HBCUs, and you can see the impact on productivity, morale, and confidence.

Those of us who went to HBCUs and had close friends we grew up with say, yeah, you can always tell the difference. I knew this was the only time in my life when I would be part of the majority living in Atlanta with Black leaders, professors, and students. There was a lot of Black leadership amongst us, and having the Kings there, Dr. Martin Luther King’s sister was a teacher of mine; we lived the history. And we were immersed in that, which was a huge difference for me.

USBE: Your story is a lot like what we hear at Black Engineer magazine and the Black Engineer of the Year Conference. You find that you have a generation of people who have gone to HBCUs and are now sitting in corner offices. They have huge budgets. They’re making decisions. They’re rainmakers. So, they can privilege the HBC experience in a way that didn’t happen before. So, that’s on the cultural side. On the more technical side, the report found that the 15 Abet-accredited HBCUs across institutions generated an analysis of eight thousand peer-reviewed publications since 2015. These institutions are active in publication fields associated with disruptive technology areas, and the 15 HBCUs stand out with much higher levels of publication specialization compared to the national average. What does it mean in terms of research dollars?

Stephanie E Turner: Unfortunately, because of all the other inequities and biases, we are part of these marginalized groups that always try to prove our value or worth. We can encourage people to read this report and heighten awareness; the more technical folks can read this and partner and collaborate with like-minded organizations. Some of the recommendations are to partner with predominantly white institutions. How do we change the thinking, the behaviors of organizations? We all have work to do, and how can we do it together to finally make some change?

My passion is the K-12 space. How can we help that next generation and do something now as it relates to that first recommendation in the report on changing the ecosystem of learning curriculum? Working with parents, teachers, school superintendents, not-for-profits, other community stakeholders, and the HBCUs on changing their environment and nurturing. But it’s also having them see people who look like them, training our teachers to teach differently, where there are still a lot of built-in biases that come into play, and they start as early as two years old. We’re going to start in kindergarten and try to track over time. Are the standardized test scores going to improve in fourth and eighth grade in math, reading, and science?

We were not just resting on our laurels and saying, here’s the report. We’re going on to that next step of rolling up our sleeves and partnering with others. One of our strategic partners is Alabama A&M University. We’re trying to get to know the community. And again, not making it one-sided, we have to apply equity to everything we do and start over from scratch if we’re going to have what I call generational impact.

USBE: That’s a critical point because you read that the nation’s average math score for fourth graders has fallen by five points since 2019. What are you doing to make a change? 

Stephanie E Turner: We can’t give away millions, if not billions, for solving the problem. So, we are partnering with companies who feel the way we do, have strategic partnerships with HBCUs, and are willing to put in the time and money because we know this is going to be a huge effort to which we want to commit over the next ten years and look at bringing in professors who have expertise in adolescent curriculum.

We’re looking at who are those community partners with the HBCUs when we pick a location, and I’ll say, for now, we are picking Huntsville, Alabama. So, it was my decision, and it’s one where we have an innovation hub and, again, our partnership with Alabama A&M. And so, we’re going to be meeting with the Dean of the School of Engineering. Two, are there not-for-profits that do a lot in the community there? We have employees who are active in the Huntsville community. We have a STEM council, one of our employee business resource groups that does a lot of STEM activity and work in that K through 12 spaces. We will be working with some of the Black-owned startups in Huntsville. We’re going to be meeting with a lot of the local leaders to see if we can get buy-in because we have to do it collectively.

If it goes well based on this prototype, we may pick a county with predominantly Black children. It may be just one school. Again, we must see what we can do, and we hope this will be a successful prototype. And after those first few years, we’d rotate to another location. So based on the report, 43% of our Black children are in nine states and the District of Columbia, where we have 15 Abet-accredited HBCUs. We’re staying in that domain, and we’re going to continue to collaborate and pique the interest of other organizations.

Next will be southern Virginia, where Hampton University is, and Norfolk State University, our other strategic school, and do something similar. And then, before you know it, we may move to Tennessee or Texas, but staying in that nine-state territory, we hope to start something great that will continue to multiply. And before you know it, this is what I talk about that generational impact, which is one of the functions I oversee in our social innovation space. We’re focused on STEM education for the K through 12 areas. And what can we do that no one else has done yet? And that’s where we talk about macro impact, not micro, where we all can volunteer or give money to a school or not-for-profit, but has it collectively affected the scores and economic mobility of our Black and Brown children? The answer has been no.

We want to motivate people to act. And even though the report has four recommendations we propose, it’s not an exhaustive list. What we want people to do is think about what they can do to have an impact and support all our HBCUs.

My degrees were in economics. And so, you still needed to know math. My minor was accounting, and here I am today as an HR professional. We are not focused on wanting you to work at MITRE or go to Alabama A&M or Norfolk State. It’s about how we can provide the skills and capabilities for our children who are getting lost in all these different systems and how we can engage them early. When they’re in high school, they know what they want to do, and it may not be college. You do want to provide viable options for them. When they see a North Star, they know they have value, they’re respected, people understand their lived experience, and we’re there to support them to be the best they can be, no matter what. So that’s my aspirational North Star and why I’m here at MITRE.

The opportunity to do something no one has done will be true innovation. We didn’t say it was going to be easy, and we may not get there, but we’re going to work hard and try our darndest to do what we can. To say that we impacted this world and society for the better.

USBE: It’s always an uphill battle against a legacy of underinvestment that you’ve talked about. But you have the NSF talking about blue-collar STEM. Accredited schools are doing a fantastic job of graduating engineers, but many kids don’t want to go to college. And there are so many opportunities, digital and computing opportunities happening, but they want to avoid going to college.

Stephanie E Turner: We’re not preaching that they must attend a four-year or two-year institution. What they were learning will be outdated by the time they graduate and go to work, right? And so, I always say that it’s exposure. The more you can expose kids to all that we do in our careers, the more you never know what light bulb you’re going to spark or turn on, and that’s the goal: they have options. Whether at a trade school or, you know, straight out of high school, they work or start their own business.

We do so much with different organizations; whether it’s with startups and entrepreneurs or venture funding, there are so many other, I will say, initiatives that we are involved in here at MITRE. Still, this one is where we want to get our children, you know, going in the right direction and not giving up. And we must get them through elementary, junior high, and high school. That, to me, is a must. A lot of our children need to get there. Or they’re so far behind that they ended up dropping out. They don’t see anything that I would say is positive. So, it’s being positive role models and seeing people who look like them. I remember growing up and meeting many different folks in engineering because my dad worked at MIT.

I’m not an engineer, but I knew that anything I decided to do, I could do because I knew people who did all kinds of phenomenal professions. And that’s the key. That’s the goal. And even for the students at Alabama A&M, they’re not doing it to say, ‘hey, you need to come to Alabama A&M’ or even me volunteering on behalf of Spelman College. It’s just to open their aperture and know that you can.

And they may have yet to see or meet someone like us, which will trigger their goal or aspiration. And the earlier you can start that, the better off you will be where they’re going to continue because they met someone that had a positive impact that cared about them. That’s crucial in watching, listening, and being a mentor to support them in their endeavors.

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