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New leader brings his vision to NSBE

Working to reverse trends in graduation rates and STEM careers is just the beginning for the new NSBE leader

Karl Reid, stepping into the role of executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE, www.nsbe.org), compares the need for more American STEM grads to the push for science education that followed the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. And he intends to play a role in reversing the national slide in technology and innovation.

Although the total number of black engineers is increasing, African Americans’ share of this year’s total 93,000 new grads has declined to its lowest point in years, to 4.2 percent, Reid notes. Only one percent of African American ninth graders earn STEM degrees within ten years, and only four percent of all ninth graders.

Reid plans to address that issue with specific new programs to extend NSBE’s base membership and seek new opportunities. He plans to apply metrics to determine which NSBE programs are succeeding and build on those. “My mantra is ‘what’s the so what?’” he says. “By finding a North Star to guide us, we can set a course. We can measure the impact of what we’re doing, and build a strategy based on the outcome. We need to do a better job of answering the ‘so what’ question for our 30,000 members.”

The call for action to improve STEM education in the U.S. has been sparked by the country’s poor rating in global comparisons. Better STEM education benefits everyone, Reid points out, not just the students who earn engineering degrees. “The Common Core curriculum for schools can help all young people by preparing them to think, create and innovate. NSBE’s two hundred campus chapters can help students stay in school and complete their degrees so they are prepared to enter the workforce as professionals. NSBE’s current 7,000 professional members can progress to positions of leadership.”

Leadership is key, he says. “We’re starting to see the research centers of U.S. companies being located in Asia,” he says. “The U.S. isn’t always leading. I feel there is a nationwide urgency about what we need to do. Fortunately, there’s a groundswell of discussion about STEM.”

The NSBE conference
The annual NSBE conference, generally held in March, is a major event for African American technical pros. The 9,000 members and other stakeholders who attend have a big impact on the city where they meet: Nashville in 2018, Anaheim in 2015, and Boston in 2016. Before, during and after the conference, social media plays an increasing part in connecting members. Reid plans to leverage those platforms to get the STEM message out. “We have members who are more proficient in social networking than I could ever dream of being,” he says.

The annual conference is often a transformative experience for individuals who attend. The first one Reid attended as a first-year student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Cambridge) was a catalyst for his career, helping him move into a leadership role and boosting his self-confidence.

“It’s so very important for engineering students to believe they are going to be successful,” he says. “In addition to persistence and resilience, they need to see technical pros with whom they can identify. It’s the ‘Barack Obama effect.’ When students go back to campus after the conference, they return as part of a global community.”

Starting STEM young
NSBE’s Summer Engineering Experience for Kids camps for third to fifth graders – check it out on Facebook – help both the kids and their college student mentors gain confidence from working together. Some camps fill up within hours. Reid takes joy in hearing the kids toss around concepts like Newton’s Third Law, “drag,” “force,” and “lift” in ways that reflect their African American, Latino and Native American heritage. They build group spirit by competing to build gliders, jet toys, gravity cruisers and programmable Lego cars.

“The interaction is so rich,” he says. “They are learning engineering and solving engineering problems with their peers. It’s magic that happens in these camps.”

NSBE’s junior chapters maintain the momentum of the camps and reach out to others during the rest of the year. More than 4,000 members participate, helping fill the pipeline with STEM students. NSBE national chairperson Sossena Wood is an example: she participated in the pre-college initiative, earned her BSEE, and is now a doctoral candidate in bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh (PA).

An impressive background
Reid was born in New York City, and earned BS and MS degrees in materials science engineering from MIT in the mid 80s. He received an EdD from the Harvard School of Education in 2007. Before coming to NSBE, Reid served as senior vice president of research, innovation and member college engagement at United Negro College Fund.

Reid served for eight years as executive director of engineering outreach programs for MIT’s School of Engineering, where he directed local and national college access programs that aimed to increase the number of students from underserved and underrepresented communities who were prepared to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Before returning to MIT, Reid spent twelve years working in private industry, in product management, marketing, sales and consulting for computer companies, including IBM. At IBM he won several regional and branch NSBE awards.

He has lectured on race, identity and academic achievement and served on MIT’s committee on undergraduate engineering practice, committee on campus race relations and Presidential Task Force on Minority Student Achievement.

Pulling together resources
Reid has invited other professional societies, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Society of Professional Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education, to work together on common goals. Relationships with other professional organizations, Reid explains, can help increase their diversity while connecting NSBE members with the skill sets that lead to certifications and licensure. “We can convene everyone and determine what the big goals are and how we will achieve them,” he says

He has put together a task force to set ten-year goals for NSBE. He intends to have a revised vision statement this fall and looks forward to the March 2015 conference to mobilize all the stakeholders. He’ll visit Ghana and Nigeria in the next few months to connect with members there.

“I never think I’m the smartest person in the room,” he says. “I want to put the smartest people around the table and offer my skill set to drive solutions. We can do more if we work together.”

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