Calvin Mackie Addresses the Issue of Underrepresented Minorities in STEM Fields

“We need a hand-to-hand movement,” said Calvin Mackie about the need to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. The former engineering professor turned motivational speaker, mentor and technology entrepreneur spoke to UCI students, staff and administrators who gathered at the Calit2 Building Auditorium. The event was sponsored by The Henry Samueli School of Engineering and the UCI Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs.

“We’ve figured out how to scour the city to find those in brown and black communities to play football, basketball and baseball. Why can’t we do it for STEM?” asked Mackie. “If we keep believing there is an archetype STEM student, we’re not going to reach the underrepresented minorities that we need, that will help us compete on a global scale.”

Mackie shared his own experience as an example of the potential that exists in minority communities. He grew up in New Orleans, in a house where there were no books. He graduated from high school with an 8th grade reading level and low SAT scores. After a shoulder injury ruined his dreams of becoming a basketball star, he decided he wanted to be engineer.  He went to Morehouse College but had to take remedial reading and developmental math before he could start his coursework. “They believed in me,” said Mackie. “That’s what is needed today, someone to give these kids hope, because right now, they are in despair.”

Mackie went on to earn dual undergraduate degrees, respectively, in mathematics from Morehouse and mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He then continued his schooling to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from Georgia Tech. Mackie was a tenured faculty member at Tulane University in Atlanta when Hurricane Katrina hit. Tulane’s engineering school disbanded in the aftermath, leaving Mackie unemployed. Today, he travels the country speaking and mentoring students. Among his numerous honors are the 2003 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, and the 2002 Black Engineer of the Year Award for College-level Education.

“Underrepresented minorities make up 30 percent of our population yet only 10 percent of the scientists and technologists in our country,” said Gregory Washington, dean of The Henry Samueli School of Engineering, before introducing Mackie to the audience. “We can’t fight global competition with one or two hands tied behind our back.”

Following Mackie’s talk, a panel moderated by Regina Ragan, UCI professor of chemical engineering and materials science, discussed some of the efforts being made to recruit underrepresented minorities into STEM fields. Robert Fitt, director of training and development at Broadcom, organizes science competitions in middle schools as a way to get kids interested in science. Bill James, a managing principal at executive search firm Avery James, said,  “Lots of engineers end up going into business or marketing or other fields.  I try to encourage them to stay on the engineering track, because it is the type of field where you can make a difference.”

Eric Lara, director of student affairs and alumni relations at UCSD’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, talked about trying to level the playing field with the admissions policy called holistic review, in which applicants are assessed in terms of the full range of their academic and personal achievements, viewed in the context of the opportunities and challenges each has encountered. Although the policy has worked well at UCLA and UC Berkeley, Lara says it is not working well at UCSD. “Our diversity numbers are down.”

Leyla Desliva Riley, director of academic innovation and partnerships at the Samueli School, was in the audience, and she asked Mackie for suggestions on how to help students who go home to an environment that is working against her efforts to keep kids on track in school. “The main thing is,” says Mackie, “don’t give up. Scores are not predictive of outcome. People save people. Don’t give up.”

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