A group of black engineers, mathematicians and physicians on Wednesday urged about 150 students to study hard, keep their options open and consider futures in the sciences or medicine.
The "We Can Have a Dream" conference, held at the county Museum of Science and Industry to mark the end of the Los Angeles Unified School District's observance of Black History Month, gave elementary, junior high and high school students an opportunity to meet and hear professionals in science and medicine talk about their jobs and experiences.
"We are focusing on science and math this year because we want to stimulate student interest in these fields," said Marilyn G. Douroux, executive director of the Black Education Commission.
"Preparation for a college pre-med major should begin in the eighth or ninth grade," said Ernie Roy, the coordinator at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School in Watts. "We are trying to get the elementary school kids started on selecting a career, and wake the high school students up and tell them these are areas they should think about entering."
Roy said one reason for the lack of interest in science and medicine is that inner-city schoolchildren are recognized more for their athletic achievements than for their academic gains.
A. F. Rick Ratcliffe, dean of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Cal State Northridge, told the students: "I was black. I was poor. . . . I made it. You can make it."
Ratcliffe said later in an interview that he had wanted to build bridges since he was a boy. But because engineering jobs were "something rare" for blacks in 1951, Ratcliffe spent three years after college doing other jobs. In 1955 Ratcliffe was hired as an engineer by a Lynwood company. Later he transferred to a toy company where he designed the musical voice box for a doll. He joined the Cal State Northridge faculty in 1975 and became dean in 1981.
"The low number of blacks in the science and medical fields can be attributed to a lack of role models, a lack of competent teachers in mathematics and science assigned to the black and Hispanic schools and a lack of understanding on the part of the community that math and science are important," Ratcliffe said.
Another speaker was Robert Jones, a senior science major at King/Drew who has been accepted at UCLA and UC Berkeley and is waiting to hear from Harvard. "Minority youths are sometimes portrayed negatively, but we can excel and we can compete," he told the students.
'Believe in Yourselves'
Costello Brown, a chemistry professor at Cal State Los Angeles, said he is seeing fewer black men in his classes. "You have to believe in yourselves. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something."
"We are losing the black male in engineering and science," said James A. Smith, a project manager at TRW Systems Engineering. "It's hard, I know it, but you have to want to be an engineer. I'm not going to stand here and tell you it's easy; you need fortitude and tenacity, but you can do it."
JoAnn Ogburn, a supervisor in Rockwell International's space shuttle program, told the students that part of her dream is to see more black doctors, lawyers and management executives. "You are our future. The black race is depending on you," she said.
Ten-year-old Nayana Johnson was so inspired by the conference that she has decided to become a dentist. "I like helping people. Maybe when I become a dentist I could help kids and give them a speech on what they want to be," she said.