As rising oil prices loom over the economy, Energy Secretary Steven Chu continues to stump for investments in new energy and competitive education. Chu has a particular interest in drawing underrepresented African-American students to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

On Thursday, he visited Baltimore’s Morgan State University, which houses an innovative engineering lab for developing new energy systems and clean technologies. Morgan State is one of several historically black colleges that the Department of Energy has partnered with, in the hopes of creating more black engineers. It’s a smart strategy, as HBCUs are a major source of African-American engineers and scientists. For example, they produce 33 percent of engineering degrees awarded to black undergraduates, and nine of the top ten institutions (PDF) producing African Americans with doctoral degrees in the STEM fields are historically black colleges.

The Root interviewed Secretary Chu on the importance of supporting black colleges, and what the country stands to lose if we don’t invest in clean energy.

The Root: What are some of the ways that the Energy Department has partnered with HBCUs?

Energy Secretary Steven Chu: We’ve supported a dozen or so HBCUs in terms of funding, and we’ve established mentorship programs where faculty and students have built relationships with national labs. These programs give people an inroad to research, which is what really excites people -- otherwise it’s viewed as just painful drudgework. It’s important to show students, especially people who don’t have that many role models, that it’s not all hitting books and pain and suffering, and that it can actually be really fun.

TR: How does the mentorship program work – does it involve Energy Department staffers going to college campuses?

SC: Yes, or vice versa, where professors and students go to Department of Energy facilities. Hampton University, for example, has a particle accelerator they use to treat cancer. It’s a very effective program showing that physics actually leads to real-life applications. That work is tied to one of our national laboratories. We also started an energy innovation hub, which is a collection of people from engineering, architecture and other sciences, to help design better building systems. Morgan State is a partner in that, with students and faculty doing several projects that are being funded by the hub.

TR: How were you involved with drawing underrepresented groups to STEM education when you were a physics professor at Stanford University?

SC: While I was chair of the physics department, I was active in two programs registering women graduate students and underrepresented minority students, who were predominately black, interested in fellowships. This is something that I was part of 20, 30 years ago. Going forward, in order to develop the talent pool in the United States, you want to leap into the entire cross section of the American population for scientists and engineers.

At Morgan State, they generate the most African-American engineers in the state of Maryland. This is important because they’re not only training engineers and scientists who can get very good, high-paying jobs; they’re also creating role models and an expectation that anyone can do it. It shows underrepresented students that this is a desirable career option.

TR: As Congress grapples with the federal budget, House Republicans are pushing a plan to cut clean technology and energy spending by nearly 30 percent. What’s your case for the returns to be gained on energy innovation investments?

SC: I don’t think we can afford not to do it. The rest of the world is also in a deep recession, but they also realize that in the future -- because of supply and demand, the price for oil is going to be higher – we will need better energy efficiency technology in order to waste less money in running our infrastructure, businesses and home buildings. We’re going to need clean energy because, despite what some people think, the overwhelming scientific evidence is that the climate is changing. So, the world has recognized that we will want clean energy in the form of solar and wind. The president’s called this our Sputnik moment, and says we need to get ourselves going.

If you say we can’t afford to do it, well, other countries are helping industries make these investments. In the end, it’s going to be the private sector that makes the investment, but we need to give industries the incentive. Research and development traditionally has been funded by the public sector. While the United States is saying, “We think the private sector should take care of this,” every other country is probably thinking, “Thank you very much. You’re just giving us the chance to lead this.” That’s what’s at stake here. It’s really about our future economic prosperity.