The Color of Science

FIRST runs robotics competitions for High School students.  The competition ends with a national championship round in Detroit.  But yesterday, the Greater Boston Regionals were held at Revere High School, outside of Boston.  It was an education.

There were about 64 teams competing; each team had at least a half-dozen members plus related parents and fans and coaches in the packed stands.  Some teams had upwards of twenty members.   There were many hundreds of people in attendance, I venture to say a couple of thousand although I have no reliable figures.

Where are all the high school students of color?  Yes, I admit it, I took an informal head-count.  There were many Asian students, a few I would guess to be from India or environs, and perhaps a dozen kids of African descent.  I know it is obnoxious to keep an unscientific count, as well as offensive in its own right; and I am sure my numbers are off, but — globally, I am correct, no doubt about it.

It was so skewed in favor of white faces that for a moment I thought I was in the stands at Fenway Park.

FIRST stands for  For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.  It is a progressive organization dedicated to fostering science throughout local communities.  Teams from over much of Northern New England competed yesterday; an “alliance” led by the much-revered NUTRONs took first place (my son’s Newton-based Ligorbots were on the second place alliance and move onward in the competition).  FIRST’s publicity photos show racially diverse students, from the grade school program on upwards through high school.  Why then were there so few people of African descent in the competition?  And only one team with more than one African-American (as best I could tell).  Boston as a city is 45% white, although the affluent suburbs have a very different composition.  This competition was overwhelmingly white.

Is it the schools?  Is it money (the robots and related gear are expensive, complex, require money to support the team, not to mention that you need trucks or trailers or vans to transport robots the size of your desk to and from events)?  Are there coaches in the neighborhood with the skill sets to mentor, corporate sponsors, batteries, T-shirts, mascots, metal shops, computers galore, an educational milieu?  All the stuff that goes into a suburban childhood, with at least some access to capital, was on display on the part of the competing teams.

If a fine and properly aligned organization such as FIRST, running this competition for at least 21 years in Greater Boston, has yet to organize and advance students of color after all this time, we are living in a bad place as a society.  We all are certain that kids are kids, with the same innate skill sets across racial populations (indeed modern theory tells us there is only ONE racial population here on Earth).   When different groups, labelled as different racially, wind up at different end-points, we know there is a problem.

Time to retool approaches?  I am without insight here, but as a consumer of social reality I gotta tell ya– I left the High School yesterday elated for my son and depressed for my society.


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