11/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

All Kids Need Better Access to Science

In case you haven't heard, black is in. So said a viral email earlier this year about how many of the best and brightest people in the world right now are black. Obama is the most powerful man, Oprah is the biggest media mogul, Tiger is the best golfer, the Williams sisters are the most dominant tennis players, and so on.

For many African-Americans, this listing of successful blacks is a source of pride. Others worry that it offers a false sense of equality, that the playing field has finally been leveled with white Americans when perhaps it is not. Columnist Monroe Anderson described this in Dickensian terms as the best of times and the worst of times.

For yet others, these individuals are inspirations for kids - of all races - who grow up with dreams of making it big.

For us -- as African-Americans, scientists and educators -- it is inspiring that the list includes astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and brain surgeon Benjamin Carson, Jr. That the list could have easily included presidential science advisor Shirley Ann Jackson, influential physicist Ronald Mallett and pioneering surgical model inventor Carla Pugh is an argument for another day.

Today, it is more important that we congratulate these black Americans for their achievements and thank them for being role models for youth -- especially for kids of color and disadvantaged children who may have never considered science as a ticket to accomplishment and fame. Indeed, though our own entrées into the scientific community were separated by nearly four decades, we recognize that the need for identifiable and celebrated minority science figures is no less urgent today than it was during the Civil Rights era.

Minority youth, particularly those in urban and low-income neighborhoods, simply have not been introduced to science beyond what is taught in mandatory school programs. And let's be honest, oftentimes the resources just are not available for teachers to offer the kind of engaging science lessons that might interest a student in pursuing a career in science.

President Obama has promised to "restore science to its rightful place" and to "transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age," but the truth is that we as individuals need to do our part to help. The burden of improving our children's understanding of science and math does not and cannot fall solely on the president or the government -- we must take responsibility in our own communities to help parents and kids become interested in and learn about science for the needs of tomorrow.

On the macro, municipal level, Chicago has been implementing such a model for more than a year.

Through a collaboration of public institutions and private enterprise spearheaded by the Museum of Science and Industry, the Science Chicago initiative brought the spirit of experimentation out of the lab and into the neighborhood. Thousands of interactive, public and mostly free programs helped spur thoughtful debate about the critical science issues of the day and built enthusiasm for the pursuit of science education and technology careers at a time when our competitive advantage is at risk

In essence, the partnership of more than 140 regional organizations and businesses created 140 hands-on science museums in the community, all with their doors open to kids and families who would never otherwise have the opportunity. More than 300,000 budding scientists engaged with Science Chicago, both at events and through the initiative's many online channels.

This idea of accessibility to science is key, and must be included in the broader formula for stimulating interest in science education and careers. Science is everywhere, after all, not just classrooms or labs. Science happens all around us and has real impact on our daily lives.

Science makes that cell phone call possible. Science makes iPods possible. Science makes skyscrapers possible. Science makes hybrid automobiles possible.

To be sure, science holds the key to America's energy independent future and help us mitigate our impact on the environment. Science will help us cure diseases and explore further reaches of the universe. Science will create better jobs, a globally competitive workforce and a modern, vibrant American economy.

We need, therefore, to develop the next generation of American scientists and engineers and mathematicians right away. We need to create a science-based workforce as diverse as our melting pot nation. We need to strive for a day when science is the new black, and we need to start at home, in our own communities.

Walter Massey, Ph.D.
Chairman, Bank of America Board of Directors
Former Director, National Science Foundation
President-Emeritus, Morehouse College
Co-Chair, Science Chicago Board of Advisors

Rabiah Mayas, Ph.D.
Science Director, Science Chicago