City Tech’s Black Male Initiative Earns College Kudos as U.S. Model Replication Institution

For its visionary Black Male Initiative (BMI) program, New York City College of Technology/CUNY (City Tech) has been named one of nine U.S. Model Replication Institutions (MRI).

City Tech joins eight other MRIs recognized by NASA and the National Science Foundation for implementing proven strategies to increase participation, retention and graduation rates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) academic disciplines for students underrepresented in those fields. The replication project is administered by the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP).

BMI, a CUNY-wide program to increase enrollment and success of underrepresented students, particularly African-American male students, is funded by the New York City Council. “BMI is about equal education opportunity and fundamental fairness,” says Elliott Dawes, CUNY BMI executive director.

City Tech has targeted its BMI efforts on increasing enrollment and success in STEM fields for underrepresented students, such as African-American men, other students of color and women.

According to City Tech Dean of Curriculum and Instruction Sonja Jackson and BMI Project Director and Physics Professor Reginald Blake, the College is focusing on its flagship programs in the sciences and engineering technologies because these are among its strongest and also are areas in which students of color, particularly African-Americans, and women are notably underrepresented.

“We’re the most diverse CUNY campus,” asserts Dr. Blake. “If our program can succeed, people will look to us for how to do a STEM program. This approach will keep spreading until the way the whole country deals with underrepresented students changes for the better.”

Jackson, who together with Dr. Bonne August, provost and vice president for academic affairs, administers the BMI program, affirms the College’s determination to succeed. “If we can do the job here for a significantly at-risk population, we can use what we are learning to enhance the educational success of many of the students who come through our doors.”

Increasing access to and success in STEM disciplines for underrepresented students, particularly students of color and women, is important not only to the local economy, but also to the nation. National Assessment of Educational Progress 2005 test results showed only 23 percent of 12th graders performing at or above the proficiency level in high school math. Since Americans are not competitive in math and science, jobs in such fields are often outsourced abroad. “Look at India or China; it’s obvious the U.S. isn’t producing engineers at the same rate,” says City Tech Humanities and African-American Studies Professor Stephen James, who heads the College’s BMI mentoring component.

“The key is mentorship,” affirms CUNY’s Dawes, “not just a buddy system, but a highly structured program, including peer, faculty and administrative mentorship.” Mentoring has already positively impacted the numbers of CUNY BMI students who return the following year.

City Tech’s BMI program, launched in February 2006 with 30 students, has expanded to 50 in the second year. Its strategy is multi-dimensional: to address academic success factors as well as other issues, and provide enhancements, opportunities and support from administration, faculty, mentors in the field and peers. The program integrates teaching and research: students work with faculty mentors on real-world research projects and in paid internships at leading institutions, learning the problem-solving, team-based work ethic of laboratory science. They also conduct their own research, present poster sessions and attend conferences.

Dr. Blake underlines the importance of students being introduced to STEM beyond the college’s walls. “If they’re not exposed to positive role models who are accomplished in STEM fields,” says Dr. Blake, “they have a limited sense of how, for example, black males are doing in the real world. We bring in people from outside and take students to national laboratories where people like them are doing top-notch science.” Dr. James adds that “self-perceptions must be addressed to transform negative stereotypes and attitudes.”

The BMI program is effecting institutional change at City Tech. The College now holds memberships in organizations promoting minority achievement in STEM fields and is creating a Distinguished Lecture Series and Master Classes by minority scientists and engineers. It is acquiring new facilities and lab equipment, pursuing more research funding, collaborating with industry to create a pipeline for employment of graduates as scientists and technicians, networking with other CUNY institutions to co-sponsor research and other opportunities for science students and faculty, holding pre-freshman summer seminars and developing a continuum of support for junior high and high school students through the College Now Program. “You have to start young,” Dean Jackson notes.

Traditional pedagogy is morphing into new teaching methodology. Because math, the language of science, is the “gatekeeper” discipline for STEM success, a multidisciplinary City Tech faculty team created the STEM Skills Matrix, a first-year science and engineering curriculum highlighting math as the foundation for the study of biology, chemistry, physics and the technologies. “Gatekeeper courses should become ‘gateway’ courses,” notes Dr. Blake.

Small peer groups fostering a sense of belonging work well for STEM success, so in spring 2007, with the assistance of Mathematics Professor Estelle Rojas, City Tech debuted a BMI Learning Community with The Fundamentals of Mathematics as its anchor course, and assigned each student an academic mentor; it also offers special sections of College Life 101 geared to issues faced by underrepresented students, especially African-American men, in adjusting to college. “We hold them to high expectations, and supply the support they need,” explains Dr. Blake.

Last summer, six members of City Tech’s Task Force Leadership Team attended an IHEP Summer Academy in New Mexico on attracting and retaining students of color in the sciences. In spring 2008, the College will host a major conference for IHEP Summer Academy educators, CUNY BMI participants and faculty. To enhance this effort to help students succeed, the College will soon open a Faculty Commons Center for Teaching and Learning to enable instructors to better share effective teaching methods.

As the CUNY BMI program enters its third year, a faculty development component is being added for the first time. Its long-range goal is to foster teacher diversity at all educational levels, starting with kindergarten. This addition to the program will launch initially on five campuses, including City Tech, and gradually be implemented CUNY-wide.

At City Tech, the faculty development program will address not only pedagogy but also other issues affecting success: counseling and support that at-risk students most need, peer groups to engage in motivational activities, language barriers on the part of both faculty and students in
understanding course material, access to faculty role models and mentors, and training first-year students to mentor next year’s freshmen.

Dean Jackson cites two recent BMI success stories: an associate degree graduate who is continuing for his bachelor’s and a bachelor’s degree graduate who is heading for grad school. “BMI Director Elliott Dawes has been personally e-mailing them about internship opportunities and graduate school,” she says. “They have goals, ambitions and are very hard-working students.”

The first of these students, Jhonatan Echavarria, a 22-year-old newcomer to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, wanted to be a brain surgeon until he fell in love with math and computers in the 8th grade. Now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering technology, he has nothing but praise for BMI. “Like Socrates,” he says, “I want to understand the world, and BMI is helping me do exactly that like nothing before it ever did.”

Echavarria first learned about BMI from a talk given by Dr. Blake. “What really caught my attention” says Echavarria, “was Dr. Blake’s explanation as to why so many minority and other students fail to graduate from high school and go on to college.

“In my opinion,” Echavarria explains, “the big problem isn’t that today’s young people are stupid and lack ambition, but that the secondary school system fails to engage them in the learning process and doesn’t impress upon them just how challenging and competitive the world can be.”

Echavarria adds this thought drawn from his favorite philosopher: “Socrates said that all people have good in them and that the task is to bring it out. He would admire the work that BMI is doing to show students that they have the potential to be successful scientists, engineers and mathematicians and by doing everything possible to enable them to realize that potential.”

Dr. Blake is proud of BMI’s success so far. “It has changed the way students look at their City Tech experience; they’re more optimistic and feel that they can succeed. They now have aspirations for grad school that they never had before. That’s a major victory.”

The largest public college of technology in New York State, City Tech enrolls more than 13,500 students in 57 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs in 21st century technologies and related fields. Another 15,000 students enroll annually in adult education and workforce development programs, many of which lead to licensure and certification. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, City Tech is at the MetroTech Center academic and commercial complex, convenient to public transportation.

For more information, contact Michele Forsten, 718.260.5979/mforsten@citytech.cuny.edu or Dale Tarnowieski, 718.260.5109/dtarnowieski@citytech.cuny.edu .