Olympics of the Mind

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Olympics of the mind Amid all the gnashing of teeth over the paucity of minorities in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) careers, one organization is tackling the problem by reaching into inner-city high schools nationwide.

ACT-SO, acronym for Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, dubbed the Olympics of the Mind, is a yearlong program administered by the NAACP in which professionals from several disciplines mentor students of color in grades 9 through 12. Local NAACP branches hold ACT-SO competitions in various disciplines each year and their top winners go on to the national contest, held during the NAACP’s annual national convention.

This year, New York City ACT-SO sent 18 local gold medalists in the sciences, humanities, architecture, and visual and performing arts to the nationals. The team came away with a gold medal in biology, silvers in chemistry, medical/health and music vocal classical categories, and a bronze in music composition. “I found out about the program last year when they were doing recruitment at the New York City Science and Engineering Fair at City College,” says Melissa Sanchez, a Forest Hills High School student in Queens who won the national gold in biology. “It’s really a gratifying experience, even outside the whole competition aspect of it. Even if they don’t win, students say they always found the program an experience to remember.”

Sanchez, who also won a silver medal in biology at the 2009 nationals, will enter Harvard University this fall as a premed freshman.

Data from the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators show that African-Americans received just 8.8 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields in 2005, compared to 67 percent received by whites. About half of the African-American freshmen entering STEM majors drop out or switch majors and two-thirds of Hispanic students do not complete their degree. Experts say the racial disparities occur because fewer Black and Hispanic students are prepared for STEM in high school. 

 Sanchez says she likely will explore other fields as an undergraduate. “My major will be premed when I enter, but I am also interested in a government or linguistics major. Will I abandon science? Not at all. I want to use my undergraduate experience to explore other interests before I go on to medical school.”

New York ACT-SO, the largest branch in the national program, boasts that more than 95 percent of its students graduate from high school, with more than 85 percent of those graduates going on to post-secondary education.

To date, it says, it has graduated more than 6,500 students in its 22 years of operation. New York ACT-SO Chairman Anton Tomlinson emphasizes that with funding to schools diminishing as the recession slices into state and city bud-gets, it is critical to sustain privately funded programs like ACT-SO. In New York, $1.4 billion was cut from education funding to help balance the state’s budget. “This economy is forcing everyone to trim budgets. Despite this necessity, I remind you that we not only remain an essential program, but that our services are becoming even more necessary as the economy worsens,” Tomlinson, a former systems analyst, said in a letter to  “ACT-SO Angels and Friends” in May.

The branch is in the process of organizing an alumni network, and both Tomlinson and Sanchez hope that alumni who are now professionals will do more to support the program financially. “The ACT-SO program, though it’s been up and running for a long time, is not as well known as it ought to be. It bears more recognition and it ought to receive more support from alumni who are able to give it support. Recent alumni like me are still in school. We’re still building ourselves up,” she says.