Wait‚ Something Was Missing from the Mars Rover Mission
On August 6, when the Mars rover Curiosity managed a text-book landing on the red planet, I was as thrilled and enthralled as anyone else who watched the tension in that NASA control room transform into unrestrained joy once the engineers realized that their project was a success. For me, though, watching the jubilation in that room was also bittersweet. As an American I felt the pride and amazement of this great accomplishment in space, but as an African American I was stung by the lack of black faces celebrating in the NASA control room.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees has been declining nationwide, but it’s particularly alarming for blacks. African Americans represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 2009 received only “7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs.” Education, of course, goes hand in hand with our economic wellbeing. With black unemployment twice as high as that of whites, pursuing STEM careers is an opportunity that could dramatically improve black life for generations to come.
The black church should use its influence to awaken parents and encourage young people to pursue STEM education. In addition to the economic benefit, STEM fields are about the study of God’s creations — the universe, the Earth, and all life forms. Emphasizing STEM in this context at church and the community could channel the natural curiosities of young people in a positive direction. It could help them to see and experience God not as some elusive being beyond the clouds but as a deeper, loving ever-present Spirit who is concerned about their everyday lives.
If a kid in the ’hood or the ’burbs can master the physics required to consistently shoot a rubber sphere into a 10-foot-high cylinder or mix and sync the sonic wavelengths of hip-hop beats to precision, they also can achieve in math and science classes. STEM is at the root.
As a youth growing up in the late 1970s, my curiosity in God was actually stirred more by watching reruns of the original Star Trek than sitting in wooden pews enduring long, dry, abstract sermons. Star Trek offered many lessons about how science could be used to help solve human problems and lead us to a better understanding and relationship with Jesus Christ. Star Trek also depicted blacks as intelligent leaders rather than the buffoons I often saw on other TV shows. (As an aside, some years ago I met Nichelle Nichols, who played the original Lieutenant Uhura, at an event in Phoenix, Arizona. I told her that as a youth I was in love with her because she tucked me in bed most nights as I fell asleep after watching Star Trek. She laughed and gave me a big hug.)
One of my favorite Star Trek episodes was “The Ultimate Computer.” Dr. Richard Daystrom, a black man (actor William Marshall), developed the M5 Multitronic Unit, a computer designed to run a 430-crew starship with just 20 crewmembers. The M5 was to replace a commander, such as Captain James T. Kirk. Humans would no longer die at war but could channel their intellect and spirit toward higher pursuits.
M5 thought like a human because Daystrom had implanted M5 with his own human neural engrams. It was tested under a war games scenario, while Kirk sat at the helm observing. After performing flawlessly, M5 hit a glitch and ended up blasting other starships, killing crew members. Daystrom experienced a mental breakdown while trying to talk M5 out of committing more murders. Eventually Kirk reasoned with M5 by appealing to its (Daystrom’s) sense of guilt. M5 tells Kirk, “Murder is contrary to the laws of man and God,” and concludes that it must die for its sins. Even the computer understood God’s authority and submitted.
The outcome was unfortunate for Daystrom, but this 1968 episode revealed something extremely inspiring about the overall Star Trek series: Daystrom, a genius, was responsible for the design of ALL of the starship computers throughout the entire fleet. Imagine that — a black man!
The black imprint in space travel is not science fiction. From Benjamin Baneker, the first African American astronomer, to Guion “Guy” Bluford, the first black man in space, to Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, African Americans have a long and strong legacy. And though it may not have been visually present in that jubilant NASA control room, it was there: NASA’s current leader, Charles Frank “Charlie” Bolden, Jr., is African American.
Editor’s Note: For more information on ways of encouraging student participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs, check out this report, “Increasing the Number of STEM Graduates,” from the Business-Higher Education Forum.