Images from that movie remained bound to his memory for the next several decades. Now, more than 60 years after he first saw “Space Waves” as a boy, Gates is one of the foremost experts in the fields of supersymmetry and string theory.
But he says it was a segmented series of pivotal moments and encouragement from mentors that cemented his interest in becoming a scientist –– a support network that many young African American students lacked 60 years ago, and are still searching for today.
Early on, Gates’s father took notice of his son’s interest in rockets and space travel and bought him a series of books about adventures in space by Willy Ley at age 8 –– a turning point for Gates. Another catalyst came during his first physics class as a high school junior. Two weeks into the class, Gates says his physics teacher showed him “the only real magic” he’s ever seen by demonstrating you can make predictions with mathematical equations.
“I recognized very early on that math was a game,” Gates says. “I was astounded that this element of the imagination was able to predict things in the world around us. At that point, I knew it wasn’t all science, but it was physics I wanted to do.”
But thousands of students even today lack the strong mentorship and encouragement that Gates had throughout his educational career. The shortage of relatable role models is commonly cited as a reason diversity in the sciences has been lagging. Students don’t see people “like them” as scientists, researchers, physicists, and engineers –– so they think it isn’t possible for them.
Dr. Gates enjoying a laugh with President Barack Obama
The percentage of science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) degrees and certificates awarded to different races and ethnicities has generally held steady across the board for African American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native students. In 2008-09, African American students received 9.3 percent of the STEM degrees and certificates conferred, and in 2012-13, 9.4 percent of all STEM degrees and certificates were conferred to African American students, according to the Department of Education.
Part of the stagnation could be a result of the higher attrition rates among African American students who set out pursuing STEM degrees in college. Data from the Department of Education show that of those who began in 2003-04 as STEM bachelor’s degree students, about 20 percent overall left without a degree, and about 28 percent switched to a non-STEM major by 2009. But those numbers were much higher for minority students, specifically African Americans. By 2009, more than 29 percent of African American students pursuing STEM degrees left school without a degree, and 36 percent switched to a non-STEM major.
Others have suggested that African American students may be directed toward majors that lead to lower paying occupations, such as education, social work, and the arts, while they’re underrepresented in the highest-paying and fastest-growing majors, including STEM majors. Some of that lopsided distribution may be due to personal choice, but a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce suggests it’s also because African American students are more likely to attend open-access institutions with a more limited choice of majors.
Increasingly, federal agencies and industry leaders are looking to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to lead the way in attracting, educating, and graduating more African American STEM majors.
HBCUs have “an inviting culture” that “excites and mentors students,” said Grant Warner of Howard University, during an event discussing the importance of HBCUs in STEM diversity this week.
Though they represent just a fraction of the nation’s colleges and universities, HBCUs produce more than one-quarter of the African American students who earn STEM degrees, said Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell.