Between 2020-2030, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that employment in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) will increase by more than 10%, significantly outpacing non-STEM growth at 7.5%. College graduates with STEM degrees can look forward to not only more job opportunities but also more than double the pay of others, with median earnings of $95,420 versus $40,120.
However, not all groups benefit equally from the growth.
According to a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data, Black workers are underrepresented in STEM jobs (9%) compared to their share of the US workforce (11%). In fields like engineering and life or physical science, only 5% and 6% respectively, of workers are Black. And this trend isn’t expected to improve soon. The share of Black degree recipients in STEM (7%) is equally low compared to their share of bachelor’s degrees overall (10%).
Recognizing this crippling disparity and its potential to increase racial and income inequities in Black communities, RGP’s Global Life Sciences Research & Development (R&D) Leader, Marcia Brown-Rayford, founded BrightPath STEAM Academy (STEAM includes the addition of the “Arts”). Now in its third year, the academy addresses critical educational gaps that impact Black youth, families, our national labor market and the economy.
On the heels of hosting BrightPath’s latest annual summer camp to introduce and continue exposing Black students to possibilities within STEAM disciplines, we caught up with Marcia to learn more about the event, how the organization has evolved and what’s next for the “STEAMers” who attended.
For those who haven’t heard of BrightPath STEAM Academy, can you provide a short overview of what it is and RGP’s involvement?
Absolutely! We talked about this a bit last year, and I’m always super enthused about showcasing BrightPath STEAM Academy, the great need for what we do, and the passion behind it. As a Black American leading the Global Life Sciences practice at RGP and with degrees in chemical engineering, entrepreneurship, strategy, finance and more, I know the advantages and the power of a STEAM education. I’m also keenly aware of how few Black Americans have been able (or are on a path) to exploit these opportunities. This lack of equitable representation doesn’t just hurt Black communities but impacts us collectively as a nation and global community. It deprives our workforce of much-needed talent and our broader society of the creativity and innovations a diverse group of minds can collaboratively produce.
I brought this perspective into my role on RGP’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) Council. RGP is deeply committed to investing in often-overlooked talent, increasing representation within our workforce, and bringing diverse voices and viewpoints to the table in our client engagements and internal employee interactions. An old African proverb states that it takes a village to raise (and develop) a child. Our BrightPath village includes RGP’s fearless CEO Kate Duchene and other colleagues who, upon its launch, immediately asked how they could offer support. Kate, RGP’s Katy Conway, and others have been champions for BrightPath since the beginning! “Thankful” seems inadequate in defining my overwhelming gratitude for how RGP cares and puts its hands (and financial support) on the plow. Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) is not a fad but a reality for RGP in impactful ways.
When Fox 2 news interviewed me about my work at BrightPath teaching Black youth how to conduct COVID research and more during the height of the pandemic, my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), reached out. They offered to link arms to further expose Black youth to STEAM disciplines within the University corridors. “Zeitgeist” is how they characterized our partnership, which brought Dean Aaron Bobick into the mix.
As an alum of the McKelvey Engineering school and a life sciences industry leader who heads a STEAM academy, my affiliation with both WashU and BrightPath created the perfect interlinkage for our program and WashU’s DE&I efforts. Dean Bobick and Professor Jessica Wagenseil worked shoulder-to-shoulder to design engineering lab tours where our STEAMers can conduct experiments and, this year, participate in walkthroughs with engineering professors and grad students.
BrightPath STEAM Academy started as and remains a collaborative effort—supported by educators, universities, corporations, local businesses, the faith-based community, individual volunteers and more. With the help of our corporate sponsors, we’ve grown from hosting 120 students in our first year in 2020 to more than 500 this year. RGP and other organizations have helped us not only achieve this scale but also expand our programs and camps—providing materials, facilitators, speakers and more to support learning workshops and the sharing of knowledge. I take great pride in being part of my beloved RGP, which isn’t satisfied with “lip service” (and empty promises) but donates and commits time, people, resources and vital knowledge to advance diversity in STEAM.
The organization’s third annual event just wrapped up. Can you tell us how the event has evolved from previous years?
When we started BrightPath STEAM Academy, we had no idea it would take off like a rocket. Not only were the STEAMers eager for this kind of learning, but the parents were equally excited. In 2020, our first year, we had 120 students attend virtually due to COVID-19. In our second year, that number increased to 300 campers, with15 attending live at WashU and the remaining 285 via Zoom. This year, our third, we had more than 500 students across four countries and 18 US states! We expanded the event to two onsite locations at WashU and in Camden, New Jersey, at the Kroc Center. That change enabled us to augment our in-person capacity, particularly at the Camden location, where we had 160 STEAMers.
In-person engagement is optimal as it generates an almost palpable positive energy and camaraderie in the room. STEAMers can make new friends with similar interests in a cross-learning environment. Black youth encounter others with common STEAM interests, gain a sense of identity and feel validated that a young mind inquisitive towards science, engineering or math is not weird or “other-worldly,” but quite cool. BrightPath makes STEAM not only hip but also fun! Imagine Black youth making commercials, songs, poetry, dance or rap music with a STEAM focus. How awesome is that?
Also, for the first time, we had students attending virtually from as far as Ghana and Kenya! Over the first couple of years, such positive word of mouth has spread far and wide. The queen of a village in Ghana reached out and asked if their Christian academy could participate. Also, Jane Agwaro, one of our facilitators from Bristol Myers Squibb, is from Kenya, and she inquired about whether students from a school there could join. And of course we said “Yes!” What a fantastic opportunity for our Black American students to connect with African students—learning about one another’s cultures while sharing this experience. They had lunch together over Zoom and collaborated virtually in the workshops to solve science and engineering challenges. STEAMers also learned math principles (e.g., budgeting, investing and savings) from our partners at Midland States Bank with St. Louis Market President David Noble, Kendra Harris and Nathan Fuiest as facilitators. Many of them left the event with new friends and a recognition that science, technology, engineering and math are universal principles.
Science is science; engineering is engineering; math is math, no matter where you go. Another consideration in opening the event to students in other countries is that these STEAMers could eventually make their way into the US labor market or become candidates for global organizations like RGP seeking diverse talent. It will be interesting to see where next year’s STEAMers come from!
“Science, engineering, and math are the same no matter where you go. By mentoring students in STEAM worldwide, we’re investing in our future global workforce.”
Tell us about the inspiration behind the sneaker engineering challenge and how it turned out!
The sneaker engineering challenge was a session sponsored by RGP, designed to stretch the STEAMers’ ingenuity, collaboration and problem-solving skills. Karen Weir and Kristina Scott from RGP served as co-facilitators and did an incredible job! We wanted to hold a workshop that brought together engineering and art. Footwear design seemed the perfect challenge.
We sent all the STEAMers a brick-building set that, when assembled, formed a colorful sneaker. Their challenge was to build the sneaker model using nothing but visualizations as their blueprint. No instructions were included—just pictures and graphics that our guest neuroscientists from Hx Innovation (Von and Nicole Homer) led our STEAMers through. And, let me tell you, assembling it was no small feat. There were 410 pieces to be constructed with not much time! This gave our STEAMers personal insight into the urgency around engineering projects in the real world, where time-to-market is of the essence.
They had an hour-and-a-half to build the Nike sneaker. We expected that most would not complete it during the session, but a few excelled, made excellent traction and finished the project! Even more excitingly, the students were so engaged that many continued building their sneakers after the time was up.
As they worked, they had the opportunity to learn about how sneakers are designed to support the biology and neuroergonomics of the foot, the purpose of the sole, tongue, shape of the sneaker and more. So, the challenge taught them engineering concepts and how to apply design thinking in problem-solving. That’s what engineering is all about—taking whatever materials and information you’re given and formulating solutions.
“Engineering is more than just problem-solving; it’s collaboration and partnership. The students worked together to figure out how the pieces fit and how to think analytically.”
Why are programs like this so essential to cultivating our next generation of talent?
Underserved, underprivileged students must have mentors and facilitators who look like them—people from whom they can learn and demonstrate that any accomplishment they set their minds to achieve is attainable. When I was 17, I participated in a program targeted toward minorities pursuing careers in engineering and business. That was an essential step in my journey to a career in life sciences. Later, when I was asked to mentor a group of graduate students at Georgia Tech’s Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Program sponsored by Exxon, I paid it forward to a female grad student (Jane Agwaro) and helped her network and land a role at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) as a bioengineer. This year, she was one of the facilitators at the STEAM Academy, leading a session on DNA and genetics, which BMS sponsored for the third year. Additionally, Dr. Anthonise Fields and Dawn Johnson of BMS were super-facilitators for the morning DNA and genetics session for the younger STEAMers. They are also Black scientists and healthcare workers.
Exposing underprivileged students to science, engineering, technology and other STEAM learning increases the probability that they will pursue an education or career in one of these fields and solve some of the world’s most complex problems. Perhaps some will become medical doctors who conduct clinical trials to enhance diversity and inclusion in research. The more representation we can achieve for Black youth in STEAM, the more mentors we create to foster others.
We addressed this in a presentation on the importance of DE&I in STEAM careers led by Shawn Curwen, former co-chair of RGP’s DE&I Council. Shawn recently joined DiversityInc, a media company where he now oversees operations and focuses on educating the private, public and social sectors on the business benefits of diversity. It was great for the STEAMers to witness his career advancement from when he last presented to them in 2021.
“It’s the ‘each one, teach one’ principle in effect. When you mentor a student in STEAM, you’re investing in both them and those they will go on to mentor in the future. I’m personally a product of this principle and effective STEAM mentoring.”
STEAM professions are the foundation for all new scientific and technological insights. Therefore, diversity is critical. Diverse teams outperform non-inclusive ones because they bring different viewpoints, experiences and questions to the table. When you think about things like vaccines, for example, distributed broadly to people of all races and ethnicities, having underrepresented demographics represented in their research and development ensures medicines and therapeutics are safe and effective for all. Through BrightPath, we endeavor to increase Black student representation in STEAM careers and future innovations in science and technology that impact us all.
What does the next phase of BrightPath’s evolution look like, and what’s next for the STEAMers?
We aim to build a long-term relationship with our STEAMers, providing ongoing education and support as they go on to select a discipline in college and pursue their careers. BrightPath anticipates that today’s STEAMers will return to the academy in the future as instructors, facilitators, mentors and supporters—paying it forward. We’re continuing our second annual six-week LEAP program (Learning Engineering to Accentuate Possibilities) for middle schoolers this fall. Still, our long-term goals are even more expansive and involve economic development.
We’re also working to create a STEAM-based hub-and-spoke style ecosystem or offer what some would call “wraparound services”—comprehensive, holistic support for underprivileged youth in traditionally underserved communities. We want to ensure they get proper nutrition, health care, social support, intelligent recreation and access to other enabling services like sustainable housing that set them up for success in their pursuit of STEAM aspirations.
BrightPath, in partnership with community development corporations, will facilitate connecting Black/minority-owned businesses with funding and entrepreneurial support from banks, capital funders, developers/builders, WashU and other collaborators. Together, we can create a robust STEAM-based ecosystem to support our students, removing barriers and increasing equity as they discover their talents and pursue endless educational possibilities.