New York -- If American engineering is to remain competitive, the profession needs the contributions of all the country's young thinkers, including aspiring African-American innovators. That is the message electronics engineer Wilbert Murdock and his colleagues deliver to all who will listen.
African-Americans represent just over 3 percent of people working in engineering, according to a 2000 study by the National Science Foundation. Yet they have a long history of scientific invention and innovation, from Lewis Howard Latimer, who invented the light bulb filament and worked closely with Alexander Graham Bell, to supercomputer software pioneer Philip Emeagwali, a Nigerian-born naturalized U.S. citizen. Many developed groundbreaking technologies despite being denied access to resources.
Scientists and educators across the country are working to entice young African-Americans to consider scientific careers. If a January seminar organized by Murdock at New York City's Schomberg Center for Research on Black Culture was any indication, those efforts may be paying dividends. Some in the overcapacity crowd had to be turned away at the door as teens and their parents packed the center's 300-seat auditorium. The assembled young people were told about the intellectual legacy to which they are heirs, were encouraged to dream big and were treated to demos of cutting-edge technologies developed by program participants.
Murdock, who was profiled in EE Times in January (go to www.eetimes. com and enter "175802062" in the search box), had two simple messages. First, he called his young audience capable of developing the next mind-blowing innovation and added that the world needs their ideas. Second, he said, African-American youth and young people in general will be attracted to high-tech fields if studying science relates to their experience. Thus, Murdock said, educators and professionals should look to leverage young people's affinity for high-tech toys, enhancing tech's appeal as a field of study by connecting the technology they use to the sports and pop cultures they love. Evoking the do-or-die, nationalistically tinged fervor of the Sputnik era, Murdock told his young audience, "Without each one of you young men and young women, the technology race for 'team America' will be over."
Murdock's message included a call for personal responsibility in bringing about the desired changes. "It's important that you develop discipline," he told the assembled young people. "It's important that you develop a new way of life. We have a million Americans of African descent incarcerated. Let's change the paradigm, and instead have a million Americans of African descent in team America going to college."
A linchpin of Murdock's strategy is the Science of Disruptive Technologies Business Innovation Systems, a curriculum he's developed that he said "fundamentally breaks down the science of innovation in a way that even children can understand." The approach, he said in an interview after the seminar, "engages young people by using . . . my proprietary learning system, using the science of rap music and sports. Schools in general tell us that young people are not interested in science. My answer . . . is a fun and interactive approach."
Pressed to explain, Murdock provided few details, explaining that patents are pending on several aspects of the method. But he did say the key is "letting people know that they have the intellectual ability to invent."
That's precisely what Jerry Hultin, president of Polytechnic University (Brooklyn, N.Y.)--one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the country--sought to do as he took the seminar stage to mine the audience for ideas.
"What's something that you think we need? Something you would like to invent?" he asked the crowd. Hands shot up: A house whose every function would be controlled by voice command. A portable device to magnify the world for the visually impaired. A car that would do all the driving. Sneakers that would help their wearer fly.
Hultin drew a PDA with a television screen out of his pocket and held it up. "Five years ago this technology didn't exist. Now it does. You can do the same thing," he said. "Put your idea on a piece of paper, and in about two years, take it out and see if you made progress on it. It doesn't necessarily mean you'll have developed it. It could mean getting an A in math. That's what high school and university are for. You get the tools to make your ideas realities."
Two things "seem to work best" in sparking young people's interest in science, Hultin said. One "is to do things that are hands-on, so they can see how science and technology work. Two, show how science can solve real-world problems. This is not just book learning."
Polytechnic hosts summer robotics workshops for high-school science teachers. The intent is that the teachers will bring their hands-on enthusiasm back to their classrooms. The university also offers a science education degree; is considering sponsoring science and technology charter schools, with assistance from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and is a sponsor for the Technology and Electronics Expo that's slated to be held in New York in 2007.
Murdock tried to make the Schomberg Center seminar as interactive as possible. He quizzed the audience, raffled away donated iPods and called students to the stage to participate in experiments.
With the guidance of Polytechnic faculty and Murdock's business partners, the young people got a chance to see engineering up-close.
One girl tested an EKG reader, watching her heart rate spike as she did jumping jacks while linked to a sensor. Murdock colleague Mohamed Aboshihata performed the classic physics demonstration of air force friction and terminal velocity with a coffee filter, but with a sensor attached to the filter and a large monitor so the audience could see the object's speed. To explain the real-world implication of air force friction, Aboshihata noted a recent NASA mission to retrieve space dust had used a parachute to slow the canister's descent, thus protecting its cargo.