Studies that explore the academic pathways of Black STEM undergraduates have often generalized these students’ K-12 experiences. Researchers frequently note the impact of underfunded and overburdened majority-Black schools. This structural disadvantage is a presumed cause for African Americans’ underperformance in baccalaureate STEM programs, particularly when these students are compared to their White and Asian counterparts. While this work has been important in highlighting the challenges facing majority-minority populations, with few exceptions this scholarship tends not to disaggregate Black students’ varied K-12 experiences. This can in effect amalgamate very diverse K-12 accounts into a sweeping deficit-laden narrative.
Drawing on a study that employed qualitative methodologies to unpack the experiences of Black transfer students in engineering, our paper illuminates heterogeneous primary and secondary school experiences for six participants broadly classified as “Black” or “African American.” Using individual interviews and focus groups, this study explored the similarities and differences between the participants’ pre-college educational backgrounds.
The findings that we describe demonstrate the ways in which some academically talented engineering undergraduates benefit from pre-college instruction in STEM courses. In addition, we present a more contextualized description of the differences between the various types of schools that Black engineering students may attend. We closely examine descriptive differences between the public school experiences of two respondents and the private school experiences of one respondent; each interviewee was educated in the U.S. Apparent differences included an emphasis on pursuing science-based degrees for a private school attendee, versus an emphasis on mathematics and mathematical competencies for undergraduates who attended American public schools. On the other hand, all Black African students in the study attended private schools in their home countries. In their interviews, they recalled fairly demanding classes, which seemed to prepare them well for their undergraduate studies.
Through our literature review and qualitative research, we attempt to build a foundation for unpacking the diverse school experiences that Black children may encounter. In addition, we begin to address the literature gap concerning the lack of attention that studies have placed on understanding African students’ K-12 experiences. In this process, we reveal ways in which these challenging curricula in African countries may be enhancing students’ knowledge in STEM disciplines. Our study complements and adds nuance to many of the current literature on Black K-12 experiences. The results of this paper can inform recruitment and retention efforts that aim to support Black students in undergraduate engineering programs. For example, practitioners who oversee Minority Engineering Programs (MEPs) may be better able to provide differentiated support to students with diverse pre-college academic experiences.
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