Reframing the Narrative Around STEM by Providing Role Models and Affirming the Brilliance of Black STEM Scholars

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On September 18, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans held a panel discussion titled, “Overcoming the Odds: STEM Education and College Completion for African Americans” during the Congressional Black Caucus 45th Annual Legislative Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The panelists: Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd, President, Alabama State University; Ken Barrett, Chief Diversity Officer, General Motors; Beverly Bond, Founder and Executive Director of Black Girls Rock and Girls Rock Tech; Kaya Thomas, Developer, We Read Too; Dr. Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, Teachers College, Columbia University; and Kamau Bobb, Program Officer at the National Science Foundation in the Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering, highlighted opportunities to address the underrepresentation of minorities in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs and careers. Panelists provided ways caring and concerned adults can increase engagement and success in STEM for Black youth. Two critical ways with solutions generated during the panel discussion are discussed below.

Panelists, Beverly Bond, discussed her work in founding Black Girls Rock and the importance of providing platforms upon which Black students can feel affirmed, be inspired and supported in pursuing passion—especially in STEM. Bond underscored the importance of affirming Black STEM scholars “Black children are taught by mainstream society that they’re undesirable,” she said, “We can change their attitudes by introducing them to others like them.” Panelist Kayla Thomas, creator of the app We Read Too emphasized the importance of working with Black youth to “show how the classes that they are taking can lead to a career later on.”

Panelists and participants alike discussed the need to change the way we talk about STEM. A high school student spoke of loving math until it became too challenging and those around him suggested it was too hard to figure out. Dr. Emdin affirmed the young brother’s brilliance and challenged him to celebrate the many natural connections between physics and basketball, which he said he loved.

Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd, president of Alabama State University highlighted how Historically Black Colleges and Universities are supporting African American STEM scholars by providing rigorous science and technology and ensuring Black youth feel “at home.”

Closing the preparation gap by ensuring that schools offer courses required for future STEM careers including Algebra and Computer Science.

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Panelists stressed the importance of exposing African American children to STEM concepts and experiences early, using every day occurrences like the weather and grocery shopping as a practical way to introduce STEM vocabulary. While parents play an important role in teaching, schools must also be equipped to teach STEM starting in Kindergarten and continuing with upper level math and science courses in high school. Kamau Bobb, Program Director at the National Science Foundation discussed the fact that most African American students attend schools that do not offer the course required to enter into STEM careers or to pursue STEM majors. Bob and Dr. Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor at Columbia University, encouraged attendees to ask educators and schools what courses are offered to students and to demand access to the courses required to ensure Black students graduate from high school ready for college or 21st century careers. David Johns, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans and moderator of the panel, closed the discussion by imploring all caring and concerned adults to show up, to “mentor, advocate for and otherwise support the learning and development of African American children without apology.”

Future Action:

Johns also announced the launch of AfAmEdFilms on September 21, 2015 at the White House. The first film, Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, continued the discussion of racial and gender disparities in STEM programs and careers and provided a platform for a solutions-oriented discussion of ways to increase access and opportunity to the STEM pipeline for Black youth. The film, as well as the panel discussion, supported several priorities of President Obama’s administration including efforts to increase access to and success in STEM courses and careers and supporting women and girls of color.

AfAmEdFilms will highlight films and multimedia that disrupt negative stereotypes and depict positive and compelling stories of African American students, families, and communities striving for academic excellence. AfAmEdFilms will also encourage active engagement and showcase resources to facilitate opportunities for caring and concerned adults to support the learning and development of African Americans. For more information, please visit https://www.ed.gov/edblogs/whieeaa/.

Jaasmin Foote earned a B.A. in English from Hood College. Lauren Mims is a graduate student at the University of Virginia.