MIAMI GARDENS — Historically, minorities and women have been underrepresented in doctoral sciences, engineering and other math-intensive programs. Many minority groups in America have not, for myriad reasons, fully participated in the programs; this despite the threat of a pending shortage of young scientists and engineers.
St. Thomas University’s School of Science, Technology, and Engineering Management (STU), in a ceremony held on its Miami Gardens campus on Sept. 22, dedicated the Carnival Cruise Lines Science and Technology Building, a research-class facility.
The building, at 16401 NW 37th Ave., was designed to heighten the interest of young students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to university President Monsignor Franklyn M. Casale. University officials say they hope to encourage more young minorities to become interested in the sciences.
Dr. Mae Jemison, a former NASA science mission specialist who is the first black woman to go into space, was the event’s keynote speaker. In 1992, Jemison, who is also a physician, went on a mission aboard the space shuttle Endeavor.
She said children need exposure to the sciences during their curiosity phase.
“But you have to bring them in early, from six to eight years old,’’ she said. “They come into the world curious about everything around them. If you lose them, it’s difficult to bring them back. That’s why I was pleased with the invitation to come to this ceremony. Young people need encouragement; they really just need to come to the universities and experience what is offered.”
The new, 26,000-square-foot building at St. Thomas includes 14 research laboratories, eight teaching laboratories and teaching support facilities for biology, chemistry, computer science and physics. Much of the equipment was donated by NASA.
To date, the cost of the project has been $10.3 million, according to Edward Ajhar, interim dean and assistant professor of physics. Money was raised from various sources, including Carnival Cruise Lines, Ryder Foundation, other private donors and foundations, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy, and grants from the U.S. Department of Education, board members and trustees.
The new science school is involved in several programs aimed at attracting minority students, Ajhar said.
“There are various things we are doing to reach out to the community directly. This includes African-Americans, Haitians and Hispanics. Our location is central to all cultures and we want to make it attractive to them,” he said.
The school has created a pilot program with Mater Academy Charter High school in Hialeah, Ajhar explained, “to get their teachers and our faculty together. We started meeting with them last spring so we can help supplement what they are doing.”
Teachers from Mater will be able to visit STU’s scientific discovery laboratory with their students and participate in hands-on projects to “get their hands on science because there are certain things unavailable to them,” Ajhar said.
STU has also included South Miami and Miami Senior high schools in the hands-on projects, Ajhar said.
STU’s efforts to recruit minority students also include its science partnerships with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and grant-funded activities through the Project SUCCESS and Upward Bound programs.
Ajhar said families’ reluctance to incur additional debt via loans is often a barrier to students’ enrollment at STU.
“Many families just don’t want to take them out. That becomes a challenge as any education like this is expensive,” he said.
Ajhar said that STU is in the process of finding special scholarships and raising monies to fill in that gap so students can focus on their studies and not take out loans.
During her speech, Jemison cited the television show CSI as a catalyst to the recent boost in the number of students investigating careers in the forensic sciences.
“And they can do it,” she said. “They simply need the right exposure, the right opportunities as well as support.”
She said that when she was a young girl growing up in Chicago, she would look up at the stars and think “that’s where I want to be, that’s where I want to go.”
But, she said, she lived in a world in which she “wasn’t even recognized as a person; where people didn’t care that I existed, let alone had dreams.”
When sharing her dreams, Jemison said that people asked “where I got the audacity to think I could go into space, when no one that had gone there before looked like me. Well, that was their opinion. No one should allow judgment by others to stop them.”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Dr. Mae Jemison