Friday, February 20, 2015

How to Interest African American Youth in STEM

As I settled into my first teaching position, I noticed something strange.  Our school had a majority minority student body, but my honors physics classes did not reflect the racial make up of the school.  The African American students, especially boys,were missing.  

To be honest, I never entirely solved the riddle.  I have learned that this trend is tragically common.  We need more people to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields in general.  We specifically need the perspective that only African Americans can bring to solving important problems.  Our communities need economically viable options for our youth.  STEM fields provide those, but for some reason a segment of our youth are not taking advantage of the opportunities available in STEM fields.  How do we interest African American students in STEM?

We need more African American students to choose STEM fields.  Here is one way we can move closer to that goal.

Enticing African American youth to choose STEM is a complex problem, and probably involves several solutions.  However, there is one answer that I have heard repeatedly, from my African American colleagues in education, articles by leading experts, and the mothers of my children's friends. 

Black youth need black role models.  In order for African American students to want to choose science and related fields, they need to know what has already been done by people who look like them.

You know what?  I think we white teachers need these African American role models too. As we learn what success has meant for African Americans in STEM, we will do a better job of recognizing and nurturing the talent found in our black students.  

I hope you will take the time to read about at least one of these great scientists.  Then, why not use that last couple of minutes before the bell rings as reading time, and introduce your students to them as well?

Role Models for African American Students in STEM

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John D. Oivas and Charles F. Bolden Jr. (NASA)

East West Discovery Press sent me a free copy of Endeavour's Long Journey so that I could share my thoughts with you.  This story features a young boy named Jo Jo who visits Endeavour and dreams of what it would be like to fly with her.  The story shares the experience of the author, real life astronaut, John D. Olivas.  The forward was written by Charles F. Bolden Jr., the Administrator of NASA.  I was struck by his statement that, as a child, he believed that he was unable to become an astronaut because of his race.

If you are familiar with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) culture, you know that it is a tightly knit community.  This book invites children to imagine themselves as part of that community. It gives detailed descriptions of Endeavour's Missions.  The side notes give lots of science explanations.  My son enjoyed this fanciful description of a the space craft's missions. 

Dr. Mae Jemison (Peace Corps, NASA)

 One of the astronauts who flew with Endeavor was Dr. Mae Jemison.   There are several books available about her life.  I  read her own set of autobiographical essays titled, Find Where The Wind Goes: Moments From My Life.

Find Where the Wind Goes is directed at African American adolescent girls, and I think it would be a stellar read for them.  Dr. Jemison clearly remembers  what is like to be young, and addresses the issues that teens care about from their perspective.

As a parent, I found several pieces of wisdom that I can apply to raising my                           own children.  As an educator, I was sobered as I realized the obstacles that                         Dr. Jemison had to to overcome.  I think I came away from her book with a                             clearer understanding of how I can encourage African American students in the                     future.

Dr. Ben Carson (Brain Surgeon)

 Dr. Ben Carson's story is another must read in my opinion.  Dr. Carson grew up in poverty, but became a world famous  brain surgeon who preformed ground breaking procedures on patients who traveled from around the world. In Gifted Hands, Kids Edition: The Ben Carson Story (ZonderKidz Biography), he tells his story.   This is a great book for any young person who is struggling to believe that he can over come his circumstances.

 I have not read, You Have a Brain: A Teen's Guide to T.H.I.N.K. B.I.G.but came accross Dr. Carson's latest book as I was preparing this list, so I thought I would include it.  African American youth particularly need to hear from African American mentors.

Matthew Henson (Explorer)

Did you know that  the first person to stand at the North Pole was actually Matthew Henson?  Unfortunately, blacks were routinely denied credit and leadership positions during his time, and he was also ignored despite his critical role in Peary's success in finding the North Pole.  I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer is a first person telling written by Carol Boston Weatherford.  This book is aimed at elementary students.  It gives a clear picture of the hard work which went into Henson's success.  Be ready to answer some difficult questions about how he was treated, and to highlight how his perseverance over came the racism he faced.

Elijah McCoy (Inventor, Engineer)

Elijah McCoy was a well educated African American engineer in a time when that was extremely rare.  His inventions helped spur on the Industrial Revolution, and had people requesting "The Real McCoy" because of their quality.   The Real Mccoy, The: Life of an African-america Inventor (blr) (A Blue Ribbon Book) features beautiful pictures and tells his story in a way children or adults will find compelling.

Dr. George Washington Carver (Inventor, Educator)

Of course, no list of African Americans in STEM would be complete without mentioning the renowned Dr. George Washington Carver.  In the Garden with Dr. Carver is an absolutely stunning historical fiction written from the perspective of a child who learned from this great teacher.  We found this book extremely inspiring, and several gardening experiments and a host of sketches resulted.

Of course, this is  by no means an exhaustive list.  There are many, many more African Americans who have succeeded in STEM.  Do you have a resource to recommend?

Black History Month 2015 | Multicultural Kid Blogs

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  1. Great post! There are brilliant, high achieving African Americans in STEM - we need to make them more visible to our youth!

    1. Thanks Mary Anne! It is true. They don't always show up on TV, so we particularly need to make sure that all youth are aware.

  2. What a great post, Christy!! It is so true. As a former high school math teacher I was always trying to find good multicultural role models in the math and sciences for the kids.

    1. Thank you. Yes, one of the saddest things a student ever said to me was, "I can't do it. I am black." I don't think he really believed it, but it was sad that he even thought it in any level.


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