ASU scholars weigh in on STEM and inclusion advocate Eddie Bernice Johnson in honor of Black History Month
Katherine Johnson, the "human computer" whose mathematical prowess helped launch humans into space.
Frank Greene, a tech innovator who developed high-speed computer systems in the 1960s.
Alan Emtage, the inventor behind ARCHIE — the world's first Internet search engine implemented nearly a decade before Google.
These names are not heard as often as other notable changemakers during Black History Month but their contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics remain incalculable.
It’s why, at a time when the pace of innovation appears to be moving second only to the velocity of the high-speed semiconductors innovation is producing, Black History Month continues to hold space to reflect and celebrate changemakers; past changemakers like the aforementioned STEM pioneers and present ones, like just-retired U.S Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a champion of science and underserved communities who, in one of her final acts as a lawmaker, helped to craft the landmark CHIPS and Science Act.
In January 2023, Issues in Science and Technology, a policy journal published by Arizona State University, introduced an interview with Johnson this way:
"It’s hard to name a single person who has had a greater impact on U.S. science legislation in the 21st century than U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who recently retired after more than 50 years in public service. … Johnson is the outgoing chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. …. In her leadership roles in crafting not just the recent CHIPS and Science Act but many other pieces of legislation, big and small — such as the America COMPETES Act of 2010 — she has worked to make science more inclusive, expanding opportunities for women, people of color, and Americans from every part of the country."
Today is the first day since 1993 that Eddie Bernice Johnson hasn’t been on @HouseScience.— Issues in Science and Technology (@ISSUESinST) January 3, 2023
For the Winter ISSUES, @RepEBJ sat down with us to share stories from her 50 years of public service and her hopes for the future of science. 1/ https://t.co/eQTC7pqjUv
Brooke Coley and Michel Kinsy, both scholars in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, say they owe a debt of gratitude to Johnson for opening doors for other underrepresented and hidden figures in STEM. The two recently shared their thoughts on the pioneering policymaker and the impact of her work in separate interviews with ASU News.
Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: Why is it important to recognize someone like Eddie Bernice Johnson during Black History Month?
Coley: As a nurse, as a mother, as someone who was economically disadvantaged at some points in her life, Eddie Bernice Johnson saw a need and had the determination to step in and become one of the first Black women politicians in the state of Texas. I also think there is significance in (Johnson) being one of the only women and people of color to be on a science committee and forge a legacy in moving bills through Congress. … That created equity and the distribution of resources for those marginalized in STEM — even up to the present with the CHIPS and Science Act. I think that shows how her life has in fact been a legacy.
My only caveat would be that perhaps while it's important to recognize such achievements and contributions to the greater landscape of the country, I don't think it should just be during Black History Month. I think these celebrations and recognition should be all year, every day, and as pervasive as the accomplishments and contributions of others.
Kinsy: To fully understand the history of this country is to understand the role that access to education opportunities has played in it. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has been one of the strongest advocates of creating and expanding access to education to all Americans. She has consistently championed investing in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and has made it her core legislative pursuit.
In her remarkable public service that spans more than four decades, Rep. Johnson had many firsts. She was the first Black woman to serve as chief psychiatric nurse at Dallas VA Hospital; be elected a Texas state senator since Reconstruction; lead a major Texas House committee; serve as regional director for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and serve as chair of the U.S. House science committee. It was under her leadership that the historic CHIPS and Science Act was passed in 2022. We owe her a sincere debt of gratitude for her tireless efforts to make the country more inclusive, educated and prosperous. It is important and befitting that we recognize and celebrate her.
Q: How have Johnson’s contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics as a policymaker empowered and informed your work as a STEM educator?
Coley: In my work I push to elevate the lived experience and the purpose of elevating the lived experience because the demographics associated with the people whose stories I amplify in my work — these are people that have been marginalized in engineering specifically. So I think it's good to have these reminders of people like Eddie Bernice Johnson, who have exemplified the sacrifice in their own lives to be committed and what that commitment looks like. Having these types of role models for me as a Black faculty in engineering — that in 2023 would still be amongst the first in my own achievements — serve as examples of what is possible, examples of what can be done. That's real grit to have the cards stacked against you from your identity and still persist in being able to accomplish major deliverables such as the CHIPS Act and other things that she has accomplished in her lifetime. It's an inspiration to keep at it.
Kinsy: My own research lies in the general area of microelectronics security. I conduct my research through the Secure, Trusted, and Assured Microelectronics (STAM) Center that I direct. A central component of the STAM Center's mission is to develop measurable impactful outreach and education in hardware and microelectronics security programs targeting domestic students, traditionally underserved communities, underrepresented minorities and U.S. veterans.
Eddie Bernice Johnson’s legacy is one of working tirelessly to increase the number of women and underrepresented/underserved students seeking STEM degrees and careers. Her impact on the advancement of science and technology is best demonstrated by the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act — a once-in-a-generation investment in America.
Q: What gains are we seeing in getting more students engaged with STEM, especially those who, historically, have been underrepresented in STEM education and careers? And to what or who should we attribute these gains?
Coley: Anecdotally, I would say that we are probably in the worst position in terms of diversifying STEM that we have been in a long time. My research in the last two years has primarily involved Black students in engineering, and I'm talking to Black graduate students and learning that they are having similar experiences that I had in my PhD in 2010.
There are some people who still adopt the grin-and-bear-it philosophy. But what I would say is the students that are current and up-and-coming students — they are not about to grin and bear it. They are very much agentic and advocates for their own right, and they are not going to continue to accept navigating in these spaces with racism going unaddressed. (For these reasons) it's going to be harder to convince people to pursue STEM interests, and for those that do pursue it, it's going to be harder to keep people in an environment that doesn't change to accommodate what should be basic rights for everyone. So I would say the numbers are stagnant and dwindling rapidly or stagnant, and on a potential decline if change doesn't happen, quickly.
Kinsy: Sadly, we are seeing very little gains. The picture is actually fairly bleak. Despite all the hard work done by Rep. Johnson and others, over many decades, the actual numbers are heartbreaking. Per this year's NSF report on Diversity and STEM (NSF 23-315), bachelor's degrees awarded to Black or African American students in the science and engineering fields went from 4.5% in 2011 to 4.6% in 2020, a decade later.
For example, the 2017 National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NSF 19-301) report shows that, out of 419 doctorate degrees awarded in computer engineering, only four went to students identified as Black or African American, six as Hispanic or Latino and one as American Indian or Alaska Native. In all, less than 27% of these degrees went to domestic students. The ramifications are multigenerational and impair our long-term national security and prosperity.
Q: There has been some discussion about the CHIPS and Science Act’s potential to address issues of diversity and inclusion. Can you expand on this?
Coley: I think the importance of the legislation (the CHIPS and Science Act) may not be as visible to people removed from STEM, but in fact it is extremely impactful because ultimately one of the things that it's targeted to do is to bring more perspectives, more representation, more lived experiences to give weight in deciding the future of STEM and science and these technologies that impact our everyday lives.
This type of legislation has potential, through the establishment of such a large source of funds, to think about what institutions are currently active in the semiconductor industry and what institutions aren't. So when we think about representation, we think about how these new funds can be intentionally distributed so that minority-serving institutions — historically Black colleges and universities, or even Hispanic-Serving Institutions — can be positioned as leaders in these industries where large numbers of underrepresented students are being trained at the undergraduate level, perhaps as a pathway for research pursuit at the graduate level. So if used for good, I see this being an opportunity to balance the playing field and bring other leaders into the realm that have the potential to train future leaders with greater diversity.
Kinsy: The CHIPS and Science Act has the potential to address some of the issues related to diversity and inclusion in STEM and the associated workforce. The concrete long-term effects will be based on how well it gets implemented.
The most succinct way I can put it comes from a recent World Economic Forum report: “Increasing the diversity in science opens up the possibility of stable, high-paying jobs in STEM fields to more Americans. Pulling from the entire population, including traditionally underrepresented communities, provides a more robust base for economic innovation and the knowledge-intensive jobs of the future.”
Our country's strength is our diversity. Let us take full advantage of it for our collective prosperity. Am I hopeful that the CHIPS and Science Act implementation will foster a concerted effort to pull in all sections of our country both at the local and regional levels, including underserved technological areas, rural entrepreneurs, historically black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, community and tribal colleges? I choose to be hopeful, especially during this month, where many of us tend to reflect a bit deeper on our place and participation in this American experience.
Brooke Coley is the founding executive director of the Center for Research Advancing Racial Equity, Justice and Sociotechnical Innovation Centered in Engineering and an assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
Michel Kinsy is the director of Secure, Trusted, and Assured Microelectronics (STAM) Center and associate professor in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence (SCAI) in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
Top photo courtesy NASA/Carla Cioffi via Flickr