As a child, John-Charles “JC” Baucom envisioned himself becoming a sage of mysticism. He foresaw a magical wand, cauldron boiling over with potions, and the power to throw fireballs and summon lightning bolts. As he got older, Baucom realized wizardry is not a career that offers real-world benefits, so he decided to trade his wand for a college degree, his cauldron for glass beakers, and his potions for the passion that led him to a dynamic field in chemistry.
But now that he is on his way to becoming a synthetic organic chemist, Baucom, 29, is facing a more concerning realization. Even though there is an increasing number of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs available in New York City, there is a major gap in black representation within the field.
New York City saw a 21 percent increase in STEM jobs from 2010 to 2015, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Labor. Despite the growth, black workers made up 6.5 percent of the STEM workforce in the entire state in 2015, a decrease from the 7 percent recorded in 2012.
Baucom, a chemistry Ph.D. student at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, earned his bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. During his time at both academic institutions, he noted that while classes at CUNY are more diverse, there’s still only a handful of black chemistry Ph.D. students and faculty.
Of the 108 students in CUNY’s Ph.D. chemistry program, five are black, according to a diversity report the college provided to amNewYork.
“I notice that there’s a distinct lack of representation with the faculty at CUNY. At Carnegie Mellon University, it was the students and the faculty," Baucom said. "There was no black faculty at the chemistry department. … I’ve grown up realizing and recognizing and being aware of the nature of this disparity so I’m numb to it if I’m not talking about it.”
Yvonne Thevenot, founder and executive director of STEM Kids NYC, said the gap in representation can usually be traced back to a lack of resources in kindergarten through 12th-grade education.
From 2016 to 2017, the city Department of Education offered middle school algebra, high school calculus, and high school physics in 47 percent, 41 percent and 50 percent of its schools, respectively, according to the New York Equity Coalition. In public schools offering calculus, 56 percent of the students were Latino or black; however, 35 percent of students enrolled in calculus in those schools were Latino or black, per the coalition.
“In communities of color, the STEM programs and the number of STEM programs are very, very scarce,” said Thevenot. “The lower the economic level of the community, the more dismal the number is in terms of STEM programs, if they’re there at all.”
The city Department of Education has taken steps to resolve the issue with citywide initiatives such as AP for All, which provides Advanced Placement courses to 75 percent of high school students.
"This administration is making unprecedented investments in expanding STEM during the school day through AP for All, Computer Science for All and Career and Technical Education," DOE Deputy Press Secretary Danielle Filson said. "In the 2016-17 school year, 62.7 percent of students enrolled in CTE programs across New York City were black and Hispanic, and New York City outpaces the national percentages of black and Hispanic students taking AP Computer Science. This continues to be a focus of the Equity and Excellence for All agenda and we know there is more work to do.”
However, AP exam results show the percentage of black students passing their AP exams has declined despite there being higher numbers of participation. In 2018, black students made up the smallest percentage of public school students who passed one or more AP exam, by ethnicity, at 26 percent. In 2013, 29 percent of black students passed their AP exams.
Baucom, who grew up in Brooklyn, said he was lucky for the opportunity to take part in science-driven extracurricular activities, and for parents who pushed him to pursue his dreams. But for many students he grew up with, spending additional time with tutors and programs that weren’t affiliated with schools was not an option, both financially and logistically.
"I think what would help is if there was more sponsored educational resources for children in neighborhoods that don’t have that kind of educational resources," he said. "Like neighborhoods where there are a lot of charter schools because public schools haven’t gotten the funding they should get."
Thevenot said all schools should have science, engineering and math, as well as staff members who are experienced in those fields.
“There’s a reason why there is a gap. Many schools still don’t have a requirement of teachers to learn how to teach computer science and engineering. Education needs to be modified so that more is required,” said Thevenot. “We need to close the gap and we need to stop specializing segments of education that only seem to be more for certain communities that are a higher resource.”
STEM is often taught in an unattractive way that makes all students – regardless of race – less likely to pursue it as a career, Baucom said. When the idea of working long hours in a desolate lab is mixed with scarce funding and little to no opportunities to learn from STEM professionals, he said the atmosphere becomes a contagious ring of discouragement. Educators need to “make science sexier," he added.
“Nobody dreams of smelling like acetone when they come home. Very few people dream of the day they’re going into a tiny room where most things are cold, everything is glass, and it’s unwelcoming with dangerous pathogens – all to answer a question that maybe 10 people will actually care about,” he said. “Black students are generally expected to not be as capable as white students. So, if they’re already telling white students not to do it, they’re not going to tell black students to do it.”
Baucom said he understands that a long white coat, closed-toe shoes, and bulky laboratory glasses may not be the ideal work attire for everyone, but there is not a day that goes by that he doesn’t find the magic in it. All he wants is for more people of color, particularly children, to be introduced to that magic as well.
“If you don’t plant a seed in somebody’s head and ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up, rarely are you going to get a kid that says they want to be a scientist,” he said. “They could want to be an astronaut and an astronaut is a scientist – they just don’t know that. They could want to be a doctor – doctors are scientists and they just don’t know that. They could want to be a wizard, and a wizard is a scientist. … Being a scientist is attainable.”