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Minority Scholars Program is a Good Investment in Young Minds

By Arlene Modeste, APS Liaison to the Committee on Minorities in Physics

In 1980, only 2.1 percent of all physics and astronomy doctorates were conferred on minorities, including Blacks at 0.5 percent, Hispanics at 1.6 percent, and no Native American. The APS paid attention to those staggering statistics and believed that something had to be done to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and get more minority students in the pipeline toward graduate studies. The response to this underrepresentation of minority students in physics was to establish the APS Corporate Sponsored Scholarships for Minority Undergraduate Students who Major in Physics, with financial support from the American Institute of Physics Corporate Associates and other companies.

The purpose of the program is to encourage minority students with an interest and aptitude for science and mathematics to major in physics early in their undergraduate years. Too often these bright students, who could be excellent physics majors, are lured into majors that are less challenging but more lucrative, such as medicine, law or business. Therefore, only high school seniors, college freshmen and college sophomores are eligible to apply. The APS Committee on Minorities, which administers the program, believes that it is important to address the issue of minority underrepresentation in physics at the point where students make the initial critical decision about their careers: the transition from high school to college.

Today, the percentage of minority Ph.D. degrees in physics has gone up slightly, but it is still seriously disproportional to other populations. As one of the five programs supported by the APS/AAPT Campaign for Physics, the Corporate Sponsored Scholarships for Minority Undergraduate Students who Major in Physics is still working to alleviate this problem. The program has three support and follow-up components.

The first is the monetary grant to the students, which is given only if the students commit to majoring in physics. This support encourages them to remain physics majors either by permitting them to devote more time to their studies by eliminating the need to work, or by enabling them to purchase books, equipment, etc. needed to pursue their physics degrees.

The second component is mentorship. The mentor provides advice on career choices, course selections, research experiences and general information on physics. Past studies have shown that the mentorship component is of great importance to the students. Mentors act as role models and the mentor/scholarship combination shows the students that the physics community really cares about them as young physics colleagues.

The third component is the small monetary grant to the student's host physics department, which is often used to promote minority speakers at colloquia, seminars or minority functions. It can also be used to provide additional funds for the department to send the student to a scientific conference or promote the retention of minorities in the department through other activities. More importantly, however, this grant helps to develop a relationship between the physics department and the student, who through his or her hard work has brought money into the department.

From the program's inception in 1980 to the academic year 1996-1997, 359 new and renewal scholarships have been awarded and a total of 200 students have received the scholarship. Of those students, 52 percent are African-American, 38.5 percent are Hispanic-American, 9.5 percent are Native American; 56.5 percent are male and 43.5 percent are female.

One student whose scholarship has just been renewed is a Native American woman from Hawaii who has had an excellent freshman year at Brigham Young University. Her advisor and physics professor at Brigham Young touts her as being one of the most impressive freshman students that he has had the privilege to know. She has begun attending research meetings in the physics department and has also allocated time to learn about the research that her advisor's group is doing on optical characterization of thin films. Her advisor has applied for support for undergraduate research so that she can stay after the semester ends to do research with his group.

This student serves as just one example of the talent, energy and ambition of the current crop of scholars. If the quality of the recent scholarship winners is any indication, the scholarship program is accomplishing its goal of encouraging bright young students to continue with the study of physics. The mentor-student relationship is often the catalyst to the continuation of their studies in physics. Surveys of past scholars also show that roughly 20 percent of the scholarship winners have earned a Ph.D. in physics, 47 percent have earned a bachelor's degree in physics, and 18 percent get degrees in related science or math fields.

Nonetheless, the overall statistics are not where we would like them to be. There is still much more work to be done and we are constantly rethinking our program to accommodate the needs of these students and steer them down a sometimes difficult path of study that can take them to any career they desire.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin