By Rob Schroeder
“You have Black and Brown students who don’t want to build bombs, they want to build communities. These are students who want to eliminate racial disparity or eliminate poverty or practice environmental engineering, but STEM is not positioned to be attractive to those folks.”
Ebony McGee was drawn to math and science from a young age.
As a high schooler in Chicago, she earned a summer scholarship to begin studying engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology. She earned degrees in electrical engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and a master’s degree in industrial engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Her professional career took her from a position at General Electric to NASA’s jet propulsion labs to Ford Motor Company to a position as a product intelligence manager at Hewlett Packard.
There was just one problem.
“I endured a slew of what I now know were racial micro-aggressions happening at my job,” McGee said. “My colleagues would put some engineering problems on my desk and call it a joke or say, ‘Because you went to a historically Black college you probably don’t know,’ implying I didn’t know as much as someone who went to a traditional White institution. Low expectations was the primary assumption and it made me really disillusioned.”
When she was laid off after the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks, she left the private sector for good.
There is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) crisis in the country, if you listen to the experts. STEM education pushed its way into two straight State of the Union Addresses from President Barack Obama, including a clarion call in 2011 for 100,000 new STEM teachers in the next decade. The National Math + Science Initiative has its own web page called “The Stem Crisis” and a laundry list of statistics:
-less than 42 percent of American students perform at proficiency in math and science, trailing some 29 nations;
-92 percent of STEM jobs in 2018 will require post-secondary education;
-The US lags in awarding engineering and science degrees;
-Black and Latina/o Americans and women are severely under-represented in advanced studies and career fields.
College of Education alumni like McGee agree there is a STEM crisis, but the crisis is not about bolstering the workforce to compete with emerging economies. “America Desperately Needs More STEM Students,” screamed a Forbes Magazine headline in 2012.
Quieter but persistent voices are asking, when will we tackle the crisis of STEM opportunity and access?
McGee is not alone in feeling singled out because of her race in the high tech workplace. Across Silicon Valley, giants such as Google are coming to grips with what the search company calls “unconscious bias” that has dropped employment levels of Latina/o and Black Americans in the Valley tech jobs to six percent.
McGee’s experiences started her wondering how high achieving African American men and women create a successful niche for themselves amidst a world of implicit discrimination.
Already discontent with the lack of tangible social impact her work in the private sector was producing, McGee took the plunge and enrolled in the UIC College of Education’s PhD Curriculum and Instruction program, determined to study the resilience of high achieving African American men and women who rose to ranks of influence in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
Her dissertation focused on 23 high-achieving African American junior and senior college students majoring in math or engineering fields, representing Midwest, Ivy League, traditional white, technical institute, and a Black commuter campus institutions of higher education. While stereotype threat portends the continued underrepresentation of African American, particularly in STEM, McGee’s research revealed that students invoked racial conscious responses and strategies through a process known as stereotype management. There are incentives and strategies that these students rely on to substantiate their intellectual and academic value or credibility to their teachers, families, peers, and the larger educational community. This may sound like a huge positive, but the gain comes at the cost of expended energy, anxiety and even physical effects of mitigating lowered expectations. McGee argues not every person is equipped with the training and efficacy ability to fight stereotypes repetitively.
“Stereotypes are omnipotent, they are constant and they are subtle, they are overt and everything in between,” McGee said. “These results are counter to what we are hearing in the narrative that stereotypes are not deterministic of a person’s capabilities; these are coping mechanisms that students employ to temporarily defy the stereotype.”
Today, McGee, PhD Curriculum and Instruction ’09, is an assistant professor of education, diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her latest research focuses on the role of racialized experiences and biases in STEM educational and career attainment, problematizing traditional notions of academic achievement and what it means to be successful in STEM yet also marginalized for high-achieving Asian, Black and Latina/o students in STEM fields. Two studies, funded by the National Science Foundation, are examining why pathways for Black PhDs to join the engineering faculty nationwide have stalled and the implementation and study of a holistic racial and gender attentive mentoring program for African American engineering PhD students and postdoctoral scholars.
When examining the underrepresentation of Latina/o and Blacks in the STEM fields, McGee argues the problem lies not with Latina/o and Black learners but with the STEM field itself. Nationally, only 16 percent of Latina/os and 14 percent of Black college students in STEM fields emerge with a job in a STEM industry.
She disagrees with how curriculum is presented in very abstract forms for the first few years of higher education before tangible applications begin and says national politicians’ emphasis on STEM for competitiveness does not resonate with Black and Latina/o students. For one Black female student in McGee’s research studies, pursuing a career as a chemist to create skin care products for African Americans with dark shades of skin has little to do with competing with China, India and other growing economic powers.
“You have Black and Brown students who don’t want to build bombs, they want to build communities,” McGee said. “These are students who want to eliminate racial disparity or eliminate poverty or practice environmental engineering, but STEM is not positioned to be attractive to those folks.”
When urban teens of color are nabbed drawing graffiti on buildings and structures, the criminal justice system is all too likely to label these young adults as taking the first steps towards a life of crime.
College of Education alumna and teacher Jasmine Juarez sees a bunch of math nerds—perhaps unruly nerds, but nerds nonetheless.
At Sawyer Elementary School on Chicago’s west side, several of her Latina/o students engage in tagging, the drawing of one’s name graffiti style. She has reminded her students of the legal ramifications of their actions, but…
“I overheard them talking about what they want their tagging names to be, and one said, ‘I want to be slope,’ and here I am at my desk thinking, slope?” Juarez said. “And his friend said, ‘I want to be radical, that would be so cool.’
“Seeing that they are picking up on mathematical language and integrating into their lives in either positive or negative ways, it brings me sadness they are tagging but that they are translating math into their lives, I couldn’t be happier.”
Why so much joy? Because as an 8th grade math teacher, the BA Urban Education: Elementary Education ’12 grad realizes the sheer audacity of her task at hand. Not only is she charged with ensuring her students are meeting 8th grade standards, when many are still lagging on 6th and 7th grade standards, but Juarez is charged with building connections to mathematics in students’ lives to combat the critical lag in the number of Latina/o students pursuing STEM fields in higher education and the professional world.
For Juarez, that task means bridging from abstract math to students’ everyday lives. She says at the start of each school year, only one or two students will admit any sort of interest in the subject, but what is often portrayed as an attitude of indifference towards math and other STEM fields quickly fades away as students build life connections to the subject. Her attack is three-pronged: in the classroom, after school and in the community.
Take the Pythagorean theorem, for example. After investing time at the start of the school year to engage with students’ interests and comfort zones revealed a mutual love of art across the class body, Juarez devised a joint math-art lesson combining Pythagoras and Picasso in mélange of right triangles. Approaching Valentine’s Day, she incorporates shopping for candy into lessons on systems of equations.
After school, she works with a science club that brings students to the Museum of Science and Industry as well as field trips to meet with NASA scientists via video conference. Juarez is building a robotics club at the school and hopes to launch a STEM club in the coming years.
“The biggest challenge is getting them to see how math can be an outlet that takes them further in life,” Juarez said. “When I ask for students’ goals, half the class says their goal is to graduate from eighth grade, but I need to make them realize that’s not a goal, it’s a step. Developing goals further beyond this year has opened their eyes more to different careers.”
Incorporating technology gives Juarez a platform to enable students to begin devising these new life paths in very public ways. Her students build their own websites where they host their work, and she encourages her students to post pictures of their classroom work to Facebook and Instagram. She says even a seemingly inconsequential Facebook post serves as part of the strategy as integrating math into the everyday lives of her students.
Juarez is generating more than Facebook likes; her students are genuinely responding to this new way of teaching math. In surveys, her students say they have developed a relationship in math to their lives and they can finally see a connection to how math can and will be used in their lives. Some even use the word “fun” to describe the subject.
From a classroom starting with virtually no passion for math, the changeover is about as radical as a graffiti artist named Radical.
While Juarez’ students are off surreptitiously tagging, Amani Ghusein’s fourth grade students are busy with an artistic task of their own. When she asks her fourth grade science students to draw a picture of a scientist, most pen a caricature of a mad scientist.
Few draw an illustration of themselves.
“We build the idea that you are a scientist,” Ghusein said. “They enjoy science and the hands-on part of it, but you have to make it important to them, you reinforce it in everyday life, that science is important to any career you choose.”
At Dawes Elementary in Chicago’s Ashburn neighborhood on the far southwest side, with a predominantly Latina/o student population, Ghusein’s science classroom sees a steady stream of 4th-8th graders over the course of the day. Her lessons are hands-on, interactive and designed to make students see and feel the science of life around them.
On a gray spring day, Ghusein is working on that feeling of science as a chaotic scene unfolds. Looking somewhat like the mad scientists they have drawn, her students are paired up wearing protective goggles throwing cotton balls at each other’s eyes to physically feel the eyes’ reflexive blinking. While there is a lot of other learning going on—how fast one can throw a cotton ball, for example, or how to monopolize the ball from your partner, the students clearly feel the science. Even with the goggles on, her students tense up slightly before the ball is thrown and scrunch their eyes closed as the ball kisses the goggles.
“I really understand how critical it is for kids to have the background knowledge to do a hands-on lesson,” Ghusein said. “If you don’t know how or why it works, there’s no purpose to learning. There’s a backwards design of each lesson to know it’s OK to do a fun activity but to formally and informally assess if they know why the concept worked or didn’t.”
That level of critical thinking is the hurdle Ghusein sees her students needing to clear in their progression in STEM education and career fields. Sure, her students become more aware of science careers that exist when she brings in biologists and engineers and other scientists to talk about their careers, but Ghusein says her students need reinforcement that these are career options available to them. Short of their high school years, students understandably may not be thinking about college and careers, but Ghusein believes her role is to show her students they have options for their future, in science and beyond.
“You don’t just have to work in a lab, you can work on a farm, you can collect data,” Ghusein said. “Lessons reinforce you can be successful if you put your mind to it.”
Ghusein creates distinct learning roles in her lessons: some students are architects, others are engineers, still others are testing coordinators. Each step of the way, she reinforces the scientific method and elements of engineering, design and test redesign. A concentrated effort is needed because STEM is not traditionally reinforced at the urban elementary level, particularly with standardized tests stressing success in math and literacy. In literacy, teachers say skills not mastered by the third grade become progressively harder to teach, and Ghusein sees parallels to early science exposure as an indicator of future STEM academic success.
The national STEM project of the 1940s, the Manhattan Project, spawned products equally awesome and terrible. The project also launched the progenitor of the push for inclusive STEM education.
Leon Henkin came to the Manhattan Project fresh out of Columbia University in 1941, beginning work as a mathematician for the Signal Corps Radar Laboratory in Belmar, New Jersey. Later in the war, he moved to New York City to work on the design of an isotope diffusion plant and headed the separation performance group at Union Carbide and Carbon Corp. in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Following the war, already famous in mathematics circles for his radical new proof of the fundamental Gödel completeness theorem, Henkin grew into a fierce advocate for women’s access to mathematics study and careers as a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. He and a colleague discovered that talented high school students often failed to succeed in college because of unfamiliarity with the university environment, and the strategies he put into place to foster student success are pillars for academic support services for minority and low-income students at universities across the nation.
Many years after the war, Henkin would prod his cousin, College of Education alumna Gabrielle Lyon, to follow in his footsteps by combining her passions for social justice and science education. And with that small push from the Manhattan Project alumnus, Project Exploration was born.
The organization, founded by Lyon, is a nonprofit science education organization that works to ensure communities traditionally overlooked by science—particularly minority youth and girls—have access to personalized experiences with science and scientists.
“I was very interested in creating intimate learning experiences, getting to know small groups of kids over long periods of time and letting their interests drive the curriculum,” Lyon said. “I thought it would be great to take students on real expeditions with scientists, dig up dinosaur bones, give them real experiences.”
Lyon, PhD Curriculum and Instruction ‘10, began her professional career as a teaching assistant in CPS, then working as a substitute teacher. The experiences afforded her an insider’s view of under-resourced schools across Chicago’s south side. When she joined UIC’s Small Schools Workshop, a center collaborating with CPS teachers, principals, and parents to create new, small, innovative learning communities in public schools, her beliefs on the benefits of immersive science learning experiences crystalized.
Founded in 1999, Project Exploration’s first program was a junior paleontologist program that shipped Chicago kids off to Choteau, Montana for a week-long experience as full-fledged dino detectives. Following two weeks of study on geology and evolution, Lyon and her charges piled onto Amtrak for the 28-hour cross-country trip for the chance to literally dig through the dirt for dinosaur fossils, learning techniques for cleaning, analyzing, classifying and preserving.
Since the turn of the century, Project Exploration has expanded to include an all-girls expedition to Yellowstone National Park and a Sisters of Science program that polls middle schools girls about their interests in science and brings in corresponding female professionals in the field as guest speakers. A partnership with NASCAR sends youth to the Joliet Speedway to meet with technicians and driver Danica Patrick to immerse in the behind-the-scenes engineering of racing. Complementing summer programming, a winter science exploration program brings hundreds of Chicago youngsters together at locations around the city, such as one event at the Shedd Aquarium pairing youth with marine biologists for a day of dissecting squid.
With more than 350 kids involved in Project Exploration activities at any given time, Lyon says the organization’s work is proof that lagging STEM participation for underserved populations is not a matter of interest. She says many youngsters do not come to the program initially because of an interest in science, but once they become involved they find science can be a passion.
A major survey for the City of Chicago conducted by Lyon and Project Exploration in 2013 on the “State of STEM in Out-of-School Time in Chicago” found a healthy amount of STEM out-of-school opportunities but little linkage with CPS and barriers to access for severely under-represented Latinos, undocumented students, second language students and youth struggling academically, as well as transportation costs impacting all groups.
“Almost all money for science is directed at recruiting students who already do well in school, who speak English well,” Lyon said. “What we have found is that if you create a high quality program where adults really care about you, where you leverage what science can offer to explore the world based on youth interests, there is a more likely chance students will actually continue in science.”
Project Exploration is building out two new pathways, one focused on botany in partnership with the Garfield Park Conservatory and a second focused on engineering. This curriculum includes sending students out with the Army Corps of Engineers, studying bridges, draw bridges and the construction of the lakeshore and beaches with a goal of understanding the role of environmental engineering.
“We have to remind ourselves that we as adults are not experts on the issues: students are the experts on their lives, and students are the experts on who they want to become,” Lyon said. “When things that are familiar become strange and then students learn and understand and see them in new ways, that’s a very powerful experience.”