Thank you. I’d like to first thank the organizers of “A March on Education” – The Georgia Tech Society of Black Engineers for allowing me to be a part of such an important, impactful event. There’s nothing more important for our community than a show of unity in support of improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics outcomes for African American students, so the GTSBE is to be commended for holding this event again this year. And thanks to all of you students – by being here today, you’re taking a step towards making a serious commitment to achieving excellence in your academic careers, and in STEM, something we desperately need for you to do – I’m here today to tell you just a little bit about why.
As you heard, my name is Patricia Wilson-Smith, and I am the President and CEO of a small technology company called Online Media Interactive, where we help companies make sure their technology needs line up with their business goals and then build stuff for them. Whether it’s a website, a social media campaign, or a mobile app – we make sure that any solution we deliver provides business value for our clients. I love what I do.
I’ve lived and worked here in the Atlanta area for the last 25 years, but I was born and raised in Kansas City Missouri. I am in fact, a product of the Kansas City Missouri public school system. I was raised with two brothers who were smart and did well in school, and I did well in school with their help. That was back in the seventies and eighties at a time when it was a little harder to be a good student than it is now.
What do I mean by that, you ask? Well, you see – we didn’t have the internet, or Google, or Wikipedia to help us get our school work done back then – oh no. When I was in school a thousand years ago, we had something called encyclopedias – a set of big, heavy books that were printed each year to update the limited set of subjects and the limited set of information they contained. If we had to do a book report or some other work that required more than our encyclopedias, we had to go to the library. So, let’s say I needed to write a paper on dinosaurs – I would walk a mile or so to the library, find out from the librarian what books she had on dinosaurs, write down the Dewey Decimal number for the book, go and find the drawer that corresponded to the number, flip through the cards to find out what row and shelf the book was on, only to get there (sometimes) to find out that the book was already checked out. And then guess what? If I wanted to finish my report, I had to go back and start the process all over again.
Yes – it was a very different time. I remember that I was 13 or 14, when my mother bought me my first computer – it was a “Tandy TRS 80”, with 4 kilobytes of memory. Today’s computers by comparison, even a pretty cheap one, have FOUR MILLION times more memory than my first computer had. And – there was no storage of any kind. In order to hold on to a program, I had to save it to a cassette tape. I’m willing to bet most of you have never seen an actual cassette tape let alone a tape drive, and probably don’t even know what the heck I’m talking about.
But I was thrilled and amazed by my computer. Even though back then, I had no idea what computers would one day be able to do. I didn’t know at the time how important it was that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had just started Apple Computers (the company known as just “Apple” today); I didn’t know how important it was that they had just begun selling the Apple II, one of the very first commercially available personal computers. Little did any of us know how much things were about to change. But my first computer sparked my love of technology. And I’ve been hooked ever since.
Now of course, we have cell phones instead of payphones, and everything is mobile – you can take your technology with you wherever you go; stay in constant contact with everyone you know – watch movies and TV shows, listen to as much music as you want, the whole nine yards. A lot of us here today are old enough to remember the days when you couldn’t do that; when your choices for what music you could listen to and where you could listen to it were extremely limited. We remember when there were only 4 television channels for us to choose from, and when cartoons were only shown on Saturday mornings.
My son is 18 years old, but when he was much younger, I can remember telling him that we only had four TV channels when I was young – he said, “only FOUR channels?!? Did they have COLOR when you were born?” Mind you, he wasn’t asking about whether or not the TV’s had color – he was asking if actual “colors” existed when I was born. Things were very different then, but not THAT different.
I am old enough to remember how different things were, but I’m also young enough to have benefitted from all the technological advances that have occurred in my lifetime – faster, smarter computers, the internet, mobile and satellite communications, and of course all the scientific and medical advances. And so when I was thinking about what to talk to you guys about today, it occurred to me that – just like I had no idea so long ago about what was coming way back when I got my first computer, your futures, right now today, hold just as much mystery, just as much promise; it occurred to me that you too will benefit from what’s coming, as long as you do what it takes to prepare for it. And that’s where the focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics comes in.
So – let’s talk a bit more about why STEM subjects are so important. In this country, there are lots of careers that fall into the category of STEM – computer scientists, civil engineers, mathematicians, microbiologists, just to name a few, right? What we know is that people who work in those careers earn 26% more than workers in non-STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration. Let me ask you a question – if I hired you to do a quick job for me, would you rather I paid you $100 dollars, or $126 dollars?
In my line of work – information technology – the unemployment rate is consistently half the national average. For example, last year, in 2014, when the overall national unemployment rate was 6.1%, for people who do what I do, the unemployment rate was only 2.7%. In the first quarter of this year, when the unemployment rate dipped to 5.6%, the rate of unemployed IT workers dropped to 2.3%. And that’s the national average. In some major metropolitan areas, the unemployment rate for IT workers is a negative number; it is not uncommon at all for a technology professional to reach a point in their careers where they no longer even have to interview for a position; we’re sought out, hunted even.
There is such a need for skilled technology resources in this country that in recent years we’ve had to recruit talent from other countries to come here to work to fill the skill gap – why would we need to do that when we have plenty of great minds here, right here at this event and in schools and colleges all over this country? I can tell you right now, if you’re sitting here today, and you’ve decided to pursue a technology career – it rocks to be you. By embracing careers in information technology and in other STEM-related fields, you will ensure that America will only ever have to import talent to fill jobs because we want the diversity, not because we have to in order to get high-skilled jobs filled.
So the job prospects are one reason why we desperately need you to succeed in STEM courses. Here’s another one.
We’re living in an amazing age; the age of almost total globalization. Wikipedia defines globalization as “… a process of interaction and integration among the people, companies, and governments of different nations…” a process that is in large part, driven by information technology. Information Technology is the computers, and networks, and phone lines, and computer programs that make it possible for us to – well do everything. Play video games; listen to our favorite music; and of course watch “Empire” on our Android tablets. But it also allows us to store and process massive amounts of data of all kinds, manipulate it, transmit it half-way across the world, and manipulate it somewhere else. Our ability to do that has created a new kind of economy in the last few decades, one that has no geographic limits. No geographic limits means – and this is important – that American companies are no longer limited by national borders when looking for markets to do business in, and they’re no longer limited geographically when they need to find employees to help make the products and deliver the services that will go into those markets. Now, it’s as easy for a college student in Singapore to answer a phone and help a customer in Kenosha, Wisconsin with a cell phone bill, as it is for someone here in America to do the same.
Though that’s mostly a good thing, that same innovation has caused a permanent competitive shift; we now have to compete with countries all over the world, for jobs, for customers, and for economic opportunity. The only way we can do that as a country, is by continuing to innovate; build cool new stuff. And the only way we’ll be able to build that cool new stuff, is if we have an educated, creative, hard-working population of young people like all of you, who are willing, eager, and equipped with the knowledge to go off and build the next new thing; to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, to invent that next thing that none of us can live without. And the only way you can do that, is if you firmly embrace the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
I know you can do it, but there’s a lot of work to do. According to The Huffington Post, American teens rank 17th in science and 25th in math competency compared to other countries. As a state, here in Georgia we rank near the bottom in something called international competitiveness – a measure of how our students compare to students in other states when it comes to proficiency in reading and math, and the ability to take and pass advanced placement courses in STEM subjects and foreign languages – we need to be better at all of that to compete globally.
For Black students in this country, the news is worse. Minorities in general are under-represented in the STEM workforce, but African American men even more so; in fact, African American men are the only minority group not making progress in STEM. Studies show that African American students are still falling behind all other ethnic groups when it comes to performance in STEM subjects. The question is, “why?” And what are we going to do about it?
My mother – the amazing woman who put that first Tandy TRS-80 computer in my hands so long ago – got to live long enough to see this country elect its first Black president. Well – we know what President Obama has done about it. In July of 2012, he signed an executive order establishing an “Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans” whose overall goal was to overcome the disparities that exist among African American students with gaining access to good schools, good teachers, and even good principals as compared to their ethnic counterparts. And we know that as recently as May of this year, cities like Trenton, New Jersey were using the program to bring “higher learning access and opportunities to students, and rigorous training and support to teachers”, according to a recent article published by the National Education Association. So that’s just some of what the country is doing about it.
What is Georgia doing about it? Georgia has also implemented a strong set of initiatives to drive improvement in STEM outcomes for all students. Besides joining 44 other states in adopting “Common Core Standards in Math”, the state has developed and implemented programs and certifications designed to immerse Georgia’s educators in STEM disciplines to help them get much better at instructing students in STEM subjects. And that’s important, because we know that here in Georgia we’re way below the national average when it comes to the number of teachers certified to teach science and math courses, and that even though we’ve increased our expenditures per student over recent years, we still lag behind the national average in SAT test scores, and in the number of students actually taking the ACT.
So now we know that job prospects are better for students who go into STEM fields, and that the state and the nation as a whole will be better off competitively if more of you excel in STEM subjects and in careers in STEM fields. And we know that African American students lag behind, in almost every way that matters educationally when it comes to STEM, but that there is a focus on helping our students to improve. So what are YOU going to do about it?
Because the fact is it is pretty much up to you guys – each and every one of you here today. You all have a solemn responsibility to do the best that you can in school – you have a responsibility to yourselves and to your community to become the strong, talented, innovative leaders this country needs for the future. And when I say this country, I am speaking from a place of total ownership, because this is my country. This is your country, despite what you might see, and despite what you might hear to the contrary. We all know that the history of African Americans in the United States has been fraught with oppression, struggle, more struggle and socio-economic inequities that continue even to this day for far too many. We all know that we are still fighting for a fair stake in what 400 years of free slave labor earned us in this country. We all know that in many ways, we’re still fighting, even though we know it was that 400 years of free slave labor that drove the economics that made it possible for this nation to become the major super-power it is today. The news stories of police brutality, unfair drug enforcement practices, and politicians playing games with our right to vote prove that there are still many battles to be won against racism, inequality and injustice. And so, we simply cannot lose sight of the fact that as those that came before us to build this country sacrificed, each and every one of us – each and every one of you is obligated to sacrifice, work hard, to stand on the foundation that they built to reach higher, go farther, and achieve more, because we know that when we do, when we succeed – we will be making the fight easier for generations yet to come.
We need you to make a real commitment. I’m confident that you are here today, because you have already made that commitment. And I’m confident that as I look over this beautiful group of young people, I am seeing the next Internet millionaire, the next Nobel-prize winning physicist, or the man or woman who through civil engineering innovations will finally, sweet finally, solve Atlanta’s traffic problems. You’re here today – all you have to do is work hard, and focus on all the right things. Focus on your responsibility to yourself, your responsibility to your family, your community, and I think we can look forward to a new generation of African American scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians that will usher us into the next new era of innovation. Do you guys believe that?
We need for you to take advantage of all the amazing educational and career opportunities available to you. You can’t do that, unless you’re willing to work hard and excel in all of your academic endeavors, but more than ever we need that laser sharp focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That means, study hard, set goals, trust your teachers, bug your parents – do whatever you have to do to get what you need to succeed, because I mean it – we desperately need you to.
Thank you Georgia Tech Society of Black Engineers and good luck to all of you in all your future endeavors!