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Firms Forge Black Links

WASHINGTON-Looking for something new after 23 years at Bell Laboratories, Elliott Slutsky became a visiting professor in electrical engineering at Tennessee State University. This fall, three years later, he began his second year of teaching at Howard University. The work is hard, the hours long, and the problems are many. But he is no longer bored. "We're solving problems," he explained. "Besides teaching, I'm working to improve the curriculum. Industry people really can make a difference, be

By | October 20, 1986

WASHINGTON-Looking for something new after 23 years at Bell Laboratories, Elliott Slutsky became a visiting professor in electrical engineering at Tennessee State University.

This fall, three years later, he began his second year of teaching at Howard University. The work is hard, the hours long, and the problems are many. But he is no longer bored.

"We're solving problems," he explained. "Besides teaching, I'm working to improve the curriculum. Industry people really can make a difference, because they know what students need."

Slutsky is one of 13 scientists and engineers from the AT&T facility on loan this year to faculty around the country. The program, begun in 1973, is one of a growing number of links that businesses and government have forged to improve training in the sciences and engineering at historically black schools.

Participants in many of these alliances gathered here last month to mark the fifth anniversary of an executive order to help these schools compete for federal money and stimulate industry investment.

The problem confronting these alliances begins when black students avoid, or are steered away from, academic high school programs. It continues throughout their educational careers. According to a recent report from the National Science Foundation, blacks receive only 6 percent of the bachelor's degrees in science and engineering although they account for 10 percent of undergraduate enrollment. They earn 2 percent of the doctoral degrees in science, al though they make up 5 percent of total graduate enrollment.

This pattern, when combined with a projected shortage of scientists and the growing proportion of minorities within the population, can pose a threat to the vitality of American science.

For many years historically black schools toiled in obscurity, turning out more than their share of black scientists and engineers. Today, although they still occupy an important niche in education, they are losing many of their best students to large research universities. In addition to a lack of money, these schools must overcome the ignorance of program officers and funding review committees. "Even if the quality is superior," said M.C. George, a physicist at Alabama A&M University, "the chances of funding are slim for a proposal that arrives from an unfamiliar institution."

Factors for Success

Successful alliances seem to share five characteristics, according to Chester Franke, general director of joint education activities for General Motors Corp. and a member of the planning committee that evaluated 100 such partnerships. They all:

  • Define the problem and commit the necessary resources;
  • Develop a specific plan to accomplish their goal;
  • Benefit both parties;
  • Require ample staff and senior officials to lead them;
  • Are seen as investments, and are evaluated and modified as needed.
  • A three-way alliance between the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Jackson State University and the Ana G. Mendez Foundation has combined these ingredients over the past five years. The program provides cooperative work experience in the laboratory for students, research collaboration between lab and faculty, faculty internships at the lab and general support for graduate studies.

    The physics department at Alabama A&M has developed close ties with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army Redstone Arsenal. This year most of the department's 16 funded projects come from Marshall.

    "We can do much more research," said M.C. George, who is also department head, "and because the labs are very near the students can do work in areas where we are not equipped." The $1.7 million alliance played an important role in obtaining state approval for a new doctoral program.

    The alliances are not without their problems, of course. Faculty exchanges may produce "troublesome discontinuities for the school," Buchsbaum noted. And some companies may find the salary and indirect cost of providing such technical expertise to be too expensive. Donated equipment is useful only if it is newer than the equipment it is replacing.

    Congress this summer authorized the creation of a task force within the White House science policy office to examine under-representation of women, minorities and the handicapped in science. No funds were approved, however, for its operation. Paul Huray, a senior analyst in the office, said that the job would be tackled soon by one of the committees under the Federal Coordinating Council on Science, Engineering and Technology.

    Susan Walton is a science writer based in Washington, D.C.

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