Over the last month or so, I've been meeting with some of the young brothers associated with our program to talk about their experiences at the university. I've asked them about how they have negotiated the terrains of this academic institution as young black men. We've had good conversations; I've learned quite a bit.
I was talking to one of the fellas about the interactions of social life and academic networks, and he mentioned science-related study groups. He's one of the relatively few African American students known to be a high achiever in the sciences here.
He told me that it's difficult to get access to the study groups because typically one is not invited unless he or she has social access (i.e. friends who are already "in") or if one is known to have something to offer the group.
When word got out that he had scored really well on one of the exams a while back, one of the study groups invited him to join. His high achievement on the exam suggested that he had something to offer. He's the only black member of that particular group.
He informed me that access to this or other science study groups is vital for high achievement in chemistry or biology courses.The groups quiz each other and maintain contact with older students who have already passed a course. So membership in the group gives the students access.
Exclusion from or non-admittance to those key study groups is not the only reason for the small number of African American students in the sciences. But I'm thinking that it does contribute. The study groups seem to suggest that success in the sciences is rooted to social inclusion and not simply academic skills and aptitude.