Blogs  |  3.7.2022

Achieving the Dream of a More Diverse Workforce Recap

Challenger Center was honored to host several industry leaders, innovators, and longtime supporters Charles Bolden, Robert Curbeam, and Kenneth Harris to speak about their dreams for the future of STEM and STEM education. The discussion was moderated by 25-year business and social-impact veteran, Michelynn “Miki” Woodard.

The conversation opened with a brief introduction of each guest. Bolden spoke about his childhood in Columbia, South Carolina, and the difficulties he faced as a Black man trying to  obtain a nomination from a government official to go to the Naval Academy. His South Carolina Representatives and Senators wouldn’t write a letter for him. Bolden said, “My mom looked at me and said, ‘are you just going to sit there and do nothing about it?’ which encouraged me to keep searching for options and ways to get nominated.” Bolden wrote to President Johnson, but never heard back. He finally was nominated by a Federal Judge that was assigned to travel the country to search for worthy applicants to attend the academy. Bolden went on to graduate from the Naval Academy and enjoyed a 36-year career in the Marine Corps.

As the discussion continued, one of the attendees asked the panelists what parents could do to continue to spark a passion for STEM in their students, especially if Black role models for their children are limited in their community. Robert Curbeam, Immediate Past Chair of the Board of Challenger Center and a former NASA astronaut, shared that excitement about STEM can be found in the simplest places. “I remember I was curious about how things worked, and my mom let me explore those curiosities. She sat down with me and took batteries that were in my toys and took them apart to show me the science that powered my toys. Something like that connects with kids, you have to meet them where they are and encourage them pursue what they’re curious about.” Curbeam’s passion for science never wavered as he went on to study aeronautical engineering at the Naval Academy, later enjoying a 23-year career as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, and 13 years as a NASA Astronaut.

Kenneth Harris II, an engineer at the Aerospace Corporation, has worked at NASA since he was 16 years old. He also serves as a Board of Education Member for Prince George’s County, Maryland. When asked what his motivation is, he noted that he hopes his presence is opening the door for other Black STEM professionals of future generations. “Thanks to people like Charles Bolden and Robert Curbeam, who opened the door for kids like me, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy this wonderful career so far and had to face fewer challenges while doing so thanks to them. I hope I can continue to knock down those barriers so that the next generation of Black engineers and scientists continues to grow.” Ever the mechanical engineer, Harris referenced the “Domino Effect” – the cumulative effect produced when one event sets off a chain of similar events.

Throughout the event, Woodard sprinkled in questions from the audience. One focused on ensuring we continue genuine conversations about closing the diversity gap  and how to make the most of the conversations. Woodard shared her own thoughts, “It’s ok to define our differences, and acknowledge them throughout the year, not just in February. We can normalize these conversations and by acknowledging our differences, find ways to bridge those adversities.”

Throughout the hour-long discussion, Bolden, Beamer, Harris, and Woodard, have all faced hardships because of the color of their skin, and have battled those hardships with incredible grace. Each individual is an incredible role model and Challenger Center is so proud to work with them to show all students the world of possibilities STEM offers them.

We invite you to join future events like the Achieving the Dream of a More Diverse STEM Workforce discussion! Be the first to find out about these events by subscribing to our newsletter.