As a kid, Maverick Thigpen said he was always tinkering and trying to figure out how things worked. But it wasn’t until the suggestion of his high school pre-calculus teacher that his interest in STEM was piqued.
Now the college student from Missouri City is combining his relatively newfound love of engineering and STEM – an academic discipline that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – with his fight for social progress.
Thigpen, a 2017 graduate of Elkins High School, is a senior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Arizona campus who is finishing up a degree in aerospace engineering. He aspires to impact the world beyond Embry-Riddle and even beyond his objective of working at NASA.
“My primary goal is to help more Black engineers graduate and be successful in the workforce, to create a more diverse workplace in STEM to where Black people are represented to the same rate we are in the national average,” he said.
About 13 percent of the United States population is Black, but that ethnic group represents only about 9 percent of all STEM jobs and 5 percent of STEM engineering jobs, according to a 2018 study from the Pew Research Center. At Embry-Riddle’s Prescott campus, Thigpen said only about 2 percent of the student population is Black – which is why he’s trying to help impact change.
He is the president of the Prescott campus’ National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), which promotes the development of workers “who will one day solve the problems that contribute to systemic racial biases,” according to the school.
“Black people are severely underrepresented in the STEM industry, leading to a variety of problems,” Thigpen said. “These can be hand dryers not recognizing black hands, algorithms hiding black faces and even facial recognition software falsely identifying black people as perpetrators.”
As an incoming freshman in 2017, Thigpen said he was feeling out of place coming from a mostly Black high school at Elkins – until he was approached by the school’s Black Student Alliance and later the NSBE.
Now, he’s using that experience to keep others from feeling that sense of exclusion. Through his work with the NSBE, Thigpen said he works to ease incoming freshmen’s transitions from high school by helping to write student resumes and serving as a mentor to members who need one.
“I immediately felt more accepted. And I feel my presence there as an engineer helps other Black folks in STEM feel they can do it, too,” he said. “… Whenever someone is struggling I reach out to try to give them an extra hand.”
Even though he was always fascinated with objects’ foundations and workings, Thigpen said his engineering interest was first piqued when he took part in NASA’s Houston Aerospace Scholars internship in 2016 at the suggestion of his high school pre-calculus teacher.
Then as the years progressed and he was drawn to Embry-Riddle, he said he soon discovered he could use his newfound interest for a greater impact – especially after reading news stories about the aforementioned issues with Black people and technological mishaps.
“It’s just always seemed so wrong to me that people are treated differently based on the color of our skin, where we’re born, or small things like the dialect we speak. I’ve found that the more people see those that are different from themselves, the more accepting they are,” he said. “As we become a more technologically advanced species, we need to do something about this to prevent Black people from suffering disproportionately to the rest of the population.”
And though he said he has long had an interest in social justice, Thigpen said his family and their future is one of the biggest reasons for his fight.
“I’ve got to watch out for my cousins, my brother, my parents, grandparents and everyone else like me,” he said. “I’ve got to try and make the world work for them as we grow older.”
That fight, he said, is one that will continue even after he graduates this year. Upon entering the workforce, he said he hopes to become part of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration project while helping create a more diverse and accepting environment of developmental technology.
“Just by my presence it would be another reminder that, ‘Hey, there are people out there who aren’t white who are using this technology’,” he said. “…I personally have no desire to be an astronaut, but I really want to help those who want to become one.
“It’s about sharing personal experiences and, sometimes, just being a face that says, ‘Hey, I made it despite everything society has against us,’ ” Thigpen added. “And you can, too.”