I’m taking a point of privilege here this month to boast about my recent trip to Washington, DC. Why did I go? My office received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring!
To answer the first question I get, no, I didn’t get to meet the President, but the director of our center did. She’s third from the left in the seated row. She’s even shown shaking President Obama’s hand (at 4:35) in a “West Wing Week” video!
But along with my coworkers and the other awardees, I did get to go on a tour of the White House. I also participated in a meeting with Ray M. Bowen, Chair of the National Science Board, and Cora Marret, Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation, where we had a great discussion about the role of two-year colleges, the need to additional funding and of course the importance of mentoring in the effort to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.
One afternoon all the awardees spent presenting our programs to each other. It was humbling to hear from awardees who have been working to increase diversity in science and engineering longer than I have been aware of the issue. In some ways we are all doing the same work. In more ways, we are addressing the problem in our own ways. Some are focused on American Indian students, some on increasing diversity in energy jobs, others work at institutions where the population has flipped from majority Caucasian to majority Latino and others are using mentoring as a framework to expose their students to international health issues.
It was no coincidence that we received this award the same week as the State of the Union. President Obama and his administration are truly committed to science and engineering. Yet there are holes in this commitment as well stated in a recent NY Times article on science fairs. If this is truly our Sputnik moment, there should also be a Sputnik-sized investment in our education system from pre-school through graduate school. Considering who is in control of the House of Representatives, I doubt we will see that.
No amount of mentoring will get ever get us the increase in scientists and engineers the USA needs without additional support for their education and yes, I do mean cold hard cash. Science and engineering is expensive. Can you imagine how many petri dishes a college runs through in a year? Egads, right? Those costs are passed on to students. Tax credits can only go so far with the skyrocketing cost of college. And that’s just at the undergraduate level.
I will continue to do my part of solving this large challenge to increase diversity in the ranks of scientists and engineers. I love my work and even without this amazing honor, I would still get up in the morning happy with the work I do. This honor is phenomenal and I have stared at the certificate that bears President Obama’s signature a few million times since returning to Chicago. But it’s time to get back to work and if you see me with an extra hop in my step, you know why.