Up to 10,000 people are expected to gather in Pittsburgh this week for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) annual conference. The event is held each year in a different location, and hasn't been hosted in Pittsburgh since 2006. But, what happened that year made an impression. NSBE Executive Director Carl Mack said they wanted to give back to the community, and requested that some of the catering be done by an African American-owned local business. Because of exclusive contracts with the convention center, that was hard – but it was made to happen. That, said Mack, made all the difference in choosing this year's location.
"I will tell you that Pittsburgh did not have the best package for us, financially, but Pittsburgh had the best spirit for us," he said.
That, Mack said, is because the organization has a responsibility to the community because of its economic impact, adding that no other community has stepped up to help in that effort like Pittsburgh has.
The conference is put together entirely by students, and students hold most of the power in the organization. Mack said that's important in putting together programs that are geared toward getting younger kids interested in engineering. Currently, he said, most media attention on Blacks is focused heavily on sports and entertainment figures or is negative.
"When a convention like ours went to any other city, we were not "newsworthy" so the media never showed up. But Heaven forbid there is a shooting somewhere, the media is all over it. But nearly 10,000 African American engineering students from all over the county in your city not being newsworthy is a travesty," said Mack.
In order to get more African Americans into engineering, Mack said they are getting to them young – as young as third grade, to get them interested. Then they try and keep those kids interested all through school and into college. He said the main thing that needs to happen is changing the national conversation when it comes to brain power. Namely, changing the notion that smart=nerdy.
"You think 'what's sexy about engineering?' No, the question should be, 'what is sexy about being dumb?' We define sexy as smart and successful. Engineering is sexy. Engineering is the new sexy in our community," said Mack.
NSBE has chapters at Pitt and CMU. Their annual conference will start March 28 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. It's expected to have a $14 million impact on the area.