Blogs  |  2.24.2023

Paving the Way for Our Future STEM Leaders

Challenger Center

As we celebrate Black History Month, Challenger Center reflects on how we, as a society, can inspire the next generation of STEM leaders from all backgrounds. During a discussion with long-time Challenger Center supporters Charles Bolden, former NASA Administrator; Robert Curbeam, former NASA astronaut; and Dr. Kenneth Harris, senior project engineer at The Aerospace Corporation, we discussed the challenges and barriers they’ve experienced in STEM and how we can inspire our students of today to be the STEM professionals of tomorrow.

Here’s what they shared . . .

As a Black leader in STEM, what are some of the challenges and barriers you’ve had to overcome? How did you achieve that?

Bolden: “All of us have experiences in our lives where we say, ‘I can’t believe I lived through that.’ And that’s sort of the way growing up in the segregated South was. I never thought of the things I was doing as challenges or barriers—they were just the way we lived. I look back on my experiences and they are reflected in the experiences I see in young women, in young Black people, and in people of color today. As much as I hate to say it, we’ve taken lots of steps forward, but we’re rapidly taking many steps backwards.”


Curbeam: “There are going to be a lot of challenges in everyone’s life, but if you’re going to let any of those challenges define you, you’re going about it the wrong way. At the end of the day, my mom instilled in me that life is hard . . . and for anything that’s worth having, you’re going to have to work for it. If you expect anyone to give it to you, you’re playing the wrong game. There are challenges—everybody has their challenges—ours are different, but we can’t let them define us. We have to keep pushing to make sure we blaze that trail not only for ourselves but for the people who come behind us.”


Harris: “Fortunately for me, a lot of the challenges that Charlie might have faced in the segregated South, I did not have to face because of things he and others were able to accomplish and because of changing times. As an engineer, in general, there are challenges. And with overcoming every challenge, there’s a lesson of some sort. In that sense, I can relate to failing and failing fast . . . internalizing that failure and using it to push yourself forward.”

As we think about communities of color, how can we make STEM fields more accessible to students?

Bolden: “Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, I fell in love with trains. The person in the front of the train was an engineer and that was the only engineer I knew. I never dreamed of being an engineer, other than being the guy at the front of a train, because I didn’t know what an engineer was. I grew up in a middle-class Black community, consisting of teachers, preachers, lawyers, and morticians. We didn’t have any engineers. I didn’t learn what an engineer was until I got to the Naval Academy.

We make assumptions that kids know stuff, but we have to really work to inform them about what’s available so that they too can include those kinds of things in their dreams. Until kids are informed of what’s available, until they know what they have the possibility of doing, you can’t inspire them.

Curbeam: Awareness is key. But the key to awareness is visibility. We often think, ‘Oh gosh, that’s going to be hard. That’s going to take a lot of time.’ And the answer to both of those is, ‘Yes, it is.’ It is going to be hard. It is going to take some time. But it’s time worth spending.

The things that are most desirable are worth working for. It’s important that we take the time to make students aware, to make disadvantaged youth aware of what is out there, and that it is attainable. Sometimes that’s having a person who looks like them, sometimes it’s letting them experience something like Challenger Center, but it’s always about making students aware and being visible. It’s really important.”

How can communities and educators encourage kids to pursue STEM fields?

Harris: “When I speak to different groups of students, my goal isn’t to have my story resonate with everyone in the room, but if I can spark an interest in one person, maybe they’ll go on to spark an interest in 5 or 10 or 100 other students. Or maybe I spark the next Charlie Bolden or Robert Curbeam, for example. So, I always ask myself, ‘How can I impact the one?’”

Curbeam: “I call it the Domino Effect. You may tip over one, and they may tip over 40 or 50 more. You never know where that’s going to lead, but you know it’s going to be beneficial in the long run. The immediate impact may be small, but the long-term impact is very large because we’re producing more people who are beneficial to society because they’re inspiring to accomplish great things.”

Bolden: “Our message to kids is this: You can do anything you want to do, but you cannot be afraid of failure. Don’t seek failure, but definitely don’t run away from it. I ask everyone to think about this: What can you do to share your lived experience to make young people know that they too can be where you are? We can reach millions of kids if we all take the time to share our experience with them.”