Equity and Representation in STEM Education (Part 2): The Labster Podcast, Episode 15
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone, I'm April, and you're listening to The Labster Podcast, I'm proud to say that at Labster we're guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission. So thank you. With me, as always, is my friend and fellow Labsterite SJ Boulton, an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college and university.
April [00:00:44] This is part two of our conversation with chemistry lecturer Cord Carter and his former student, Brianna Brown, both with Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee. Historically, Black colleges and universities represent just three percent of all colleges and universities in the United States, but they educate almost 10 percent of all Black college students in the country. They produce 17 percent of all black bachelor's degrees and graduate a stunning twenty four percent of all Black bachelor's degrees in STEM fields. HBCUs are clearly getting it right and there's a lot to be learned. Let's rejoin the conversation now.
SJ [00:01:32] It's so interesting to hear both of you talk about how important stories and history are to get you into the subjects that you're teaching, because we know that although we're seeing growth with people of color within science and technology and engineering and math jobs, there's still a massive gap in terms of diversity. But also paychecks. I have some facts. According to the Pew Research Center, 10 percent of bachelor's degrees are earned by black students, but just seven percent of all bachelor's degrees in STEM. So we have this kind of gap or disparity where people are not choosing the STEM areas. And we know that Black workers make up 11 percent of all employed adults in the United States, but just nine percent of STEM workers. Again, we're seeing this kind of gap in science with people choosing those career paths and choosing those topics of study.
SJ [00:02:27] So it's really interesting to hear that you have these stories that really encourage you to get involved. And I was wondering if you feel there's something in that or if you think there's something colleges and universities can do to help more students of color get degrees in those STEM fields and then choose to go on and study within STEM industrially or pursue further research, especially when I hear how important these stories have been for you.
Brianna Brown [00:02:52] I feel as if the universities and colleges, they can definitely show you where this degree can take you in the different jobs because a lot of people think science degree. You think, OK, they're going to go to med school and be a doctor. No, you can be a scientist - there's so many other things that you can do with your degree. And Fisk has a roadmap for us that shows us the different jobs and different career paths that we can take with this degree, with your chosen degree, which is really cool.
Brianna Brown [00:03:24] But when it comes to the factor of, OK, I want to be a doctor, I want to go into the medical field, or I want to go into science, that takes - you've got to be bold! No matter what you look like, no matter the color of your skin, that is a bold decision. Because there's a lot of schooling that goes into it. And you have to have the willpower to keep going even when you're facing adversity or you're discouraged because your science homework is just so confusing today. You know what I'm saying?
SJ [00:03:54] It is a long road. Yeah, it's a long road.
Brianna Brown [00:03:57] And it is! And you have to really gear up for that. So it's more of one, finding inspiration, finding motivation. And I feel as if a lot of people that I went to school with, I just feel as if they had the pre-notion that I, you know, they couldn't do it, you know, because there's not too many African-American people in science or in the hospital. And then you also have the mistrust when it comes to Black people in the medical field. So it's like, 'oh, I don't know if I can do this', because honestly, growing up, there's not a lot of people to say, 'hey, you can do this'. You know? Like 'there's no limit, you set your mind to it, you can do it.'.
Brianna Brown [00:04:36] Fortunately, I've had teachers like that say 'you want to be a doctor, I got you. Here are some resources, here 's how I can help.' And Fisk has done the same thing. You know, you want to be a doctor. Do you want to go here, talk to this person, go fill this out. Let's look at your resume, let's apply to these internships. But unfortunately, that's not your everyday thing for people of color.
SJ [00:04:58] Do you feel like having, and I don't want this to sound reductive. I'm sorry if it does, again, curious white girl here, how important is it to you that you see yourself in the people that are helping other people that are trying to guide you in your journey?
Brianna Brown [00:05:14] I always say it's not whether it's important, it's more of that. It's very helpful. It gives you a sense of comfort. And it's great. It's nice. But even if it wasn't, you know, someone who was a person of color helping me out, it's still needed. You know, I'm saying? That guidance is still required or welcomed.
SJ [00:05:37] No it's really tricky to know. I remember when I was an educator, so when I was lecturing myself, wanting to provide the support that students wanted can be so tricky because everybody's needs and desires and the way that they want to see journeys in education or in research or in like medical fields, how they want to see those stories represented and who represents them is very different.
SJ [00:06:01] So I just wonder what educators can do to really help people like see themselves in the position that they want to be in? At Labster when doing those sorts of things around representation of people like the characters iin our lab rooms, for example, like making sure that we have diversity in the characters that we're using in the lab room. Even things like the food stuffs that we have that have culturally relevant and culturally diverse so it's not always, you know, Western foods that are represented in the labs.
Brianna Brown [00:06:29] I've noticed that.
SJ [00:06:30] Have you?
Brianna Brown [00:06:31] Yes, I've noticed that my character would be a different color each time.
SJ [00:06:35] Yeah. Your hand. So when you enter the lab, the hand, the skin color, on the one hand that you have in the lab, it's randomly generated in this like five different skin tones. It can be. But to be fair, as soon as you've got that blue glove on, we're all blue skinned in Labster labs. Yeah.
SJ [00:06:53] But, you know, it's just little things like that they were trying to do to kind of help somebody who might be at the very beginning of the scientific journey, kind of see themselves in that position, that it's like you don't even have to question it. It just is. It simply is. It's not even. Oh, that's unique. Or oh, that's novel. No, it just that's the way it is. That's how we want it to be. It just is. Yes. How about you Cord? How important is representation for you in the sciences?
Cord Carter [00:07:20] I like to share some statistics because I really big on the statistics, according to the Gallup Purdue Index, that they did a survey where African-Americans and HBCU versus not HBCUs in 2014, 2015. It shows that 58 percent of students from HBCUs strongly agree that the professors at the university care about them as a person, versus twenty five percent of those at a non-HBCU. So that's a big, that's a big percent difference between fifty eight percent versus twenty five percent. And there's no telling what it looks like now. Right? Because that's a big gap and Brianna touched on it when she was responding to the question. It's all about does the professor care about you as a person because sometimes you can get lost in the in the crowd, right? Depending on what you want to pursue.
Cord Carter [00:08:29] So like I mentioned in my story, I was in an organic chemistry class where majority of my classmates were prehaps majors. I was the only pure chemistry major at the time. And so having a class like that, there's more focus on medical school or wherever versus a pure chemistry. You start to wonder like is 'do they really care about chemistry? Or do they really care about students getting into medical school?'.
Cord Carter [00:08:59] And so when I sat and talked to the professor at the time, she told me, like, I actually care about you. And just to see the professors at my institution care, there was no nobody that looked like me or talked like me. But it was just cool just to have people that really care about me as a person, as a human being versus a number. So I think going to like a major university, like, O.U. or Oklahoma State where you're in the class of one hundred plus students, you're not getting the opportunity to really get to know the professor, not just at a professional level, but at a personal level.
Cord Carter [00:09:41] And I think that's where HBCUs does a really great job at this meeting student where they're at and seeing in their shoes. Because when you see people that look like you, they have a better understanding of where you come from. I think also I think the professors, before they start their courses, they should tell them about their history, share what they started from, so students can understand where their professor is coming from. And as well as the professors should ask students where they started from or tell their story. So that way they can know who they are dealing with. The help student is like in any race or ethnicity to see the how to you know, how to educate future generations of scholars in STEM.
Cord Carter [00:10:32] So I will also say like there was a paper that came out in Science, there was a group from the Chemistry and Biology Department at the University of Washington, where it shows the students that take general chemistry if they get a C or lower not only do they leave STEM, but they also leave the university like overall, because there's this stereotype where African-Americans are intellectually inferior.
Cord Carter [00:11:04] And I'll tell you, another group that I also think is similar way as us. And that's the Asian culture, because they have this intellectual superior - that's the stereotype for them. So we both have like this mindset that, oh, if I'm not smart, like people that don't look like me, I'm not good enough. And that's where Imposter Syndrome comes in. So I think if we learn to not try to compare ourselves to somebody that's in the front, the back, the left and right of us in the classroom, I think the situation will be a lot different. I think the outcome will be a lot better.
SJ [00:11:44] That's a really good point that you're raising. You touched on a little bit around preparation. And as you moving through your educational journey, and I completely agree that that sense of preparation for the next step and making sure that your transitions between different stages of your education, whether it's like graduate school to professional school or even just like high school to your next step at a college or something like that. Those things are so important. And to get that preparation and get that support, to make sure that you have a smooth experience so that you know where to go when you need help. It's so important. A lot of colleges and universities receive a lot of criticism for not making it easier for students to get the kind of experiences like internships or working on real-world projects. And I don't Brianna you've mentioned the Cord has been a mentor for you as well as a teacher. And I was wondering like what kind of things were helpful for you?
Brianna Brown [00:12:34] One thing that I really appreciated from Cord as being my mentor is sitting down and going over my resume and helping me polish that up. And also my essays that I had to turn in for my internships. And it was really helpful. I felt empowered, actually, because at the time I was lost, I knew that I wanted to get out there and do some shadowing work or some internships, you know, but I didn't feel prepared. And Cord actually taking the time to go through these things with me made me feel more prepared and empowered. And and now it's like, OK, what's the next internship? I'm ready. Let's do this!
SJ [00:13:14] Yes, I love it. Clear next steps, support, clear next steps. That's what I still need as a grown adult that's got a job and stuff. I still need support and clear next steps. How about you Cord? What do you feel are the most valuable things you can do to support somebody who is in their journey?
Cord Carter [00:13:33] So I would say we haven't touched on it yet. But in the spring this year, actually, I actually was given the opportunity to co-teach a seminar course with a college professor. And I was just wondering like, how can I help students see more people that look like us? So I spoke with the professor and the professor gave me the leeway to design the course where every Monday. Well, most Mondays, we had - I invited speakers from whether they're in academia or industry or the federal government, to talk to the students that interested in these fields to to see like to show them there's people that look like them that may not wasn't getting the opportunity to network.
Cord Carter [00:14:25] So I think the most we had was like twenty participants, which was also like a pilot project and saying, what can I do to improve it, it was just giving students the opportunity to network. I remember I had a college professor from Maryland Eastern Shore came and the students asked if it it's OK if I could stay around, stay longer and speak with the professor. And they talked for like for an hour. I set up a break out room for students to who's interested to go speak with the professors or somebody from industry. I have a friend that - a colleague that worked for GSK and he came and gave a talk about his journey. So I wanted students to see the journeys of how these different speakers actually got to where they are today and I also invited somebody that worked in a lab of a Nobel laureate that discovered the structure of the rhybosome.
SJ [00:15:29] And I bet that something like that, having given visibility to like the types of jobs and hearing the stories of those people that are succeeding. I bet that's something that, yes, the students that are at the top of the class that have like really high motivation and know what they want. It's an opportunity for them to network. But it also might be a massive motivational boost for those students who might be struggling a little bit to kind of refocus on the big picture a little bit and like find a little bit of determination to maybe pull my socks up or to get the help that they needed or to reach out to instructors if they need a bit of advice. Do you see benefit there?
Cord Carter [00:16:06] Actually I do. I would say that picking a mentor is of huge importance in any field. Right. Because when you have, you have to make sure the mentor you're picking is meeting your need, not the other way around. I think like the one thing I always try to encourage my students is not to follow a trend, but make your own lane instead. Because I think sometimes when we try to copy and paste what other people have done, we get caught up in a competition.
Cord Carter [00:16:39] I always encourage students to do something different. Don't do what other people are doing, because what what tends to happen is when you don't get into that program that you always dream about on your first try, they feel like 'oh I'm not good enough'. No! You're good enough. It's just not your time.
SJ [00:16:58] So Cord and Brianna, our time is coming to a close already, I can't believe it. And I just want to thank you for sharing your stories and your perspectives with us today. I have learned so much from the both of you, and I feel like my eyes have been opened to some of the ways that we interact with education and how important history, especially, is to how we choose to engage with our education. So just my last thing. Is there anything more you'd like to say before we wrap up the episode?
Brianna Brown [00:17:24] I would like to say thank you for having me. You guys have been a real joy talking to and I love this platform and I love actually Labster the it makes lab work a bit more easier and helped me really understand my work a little bit better. So thank you a second.
Brianna Brown [00:17:42] What Brianna said, I really appreciate the invitation to bring her and invite both myself and Brianna to the podcast. This is a great opportunity for us to share more of how to educate, motivate, and inspire others to improve education and bring education towards new people who would love to do what they want to do.
April [00:18:06] Thank you, Cord Carter and Brianna Brown, for giving us your insights about what educators can do to support students of color to succeed in college and in standing. And as we close, we want to thank our listeners. We invite you to send us your feedback on this episode at Labster dot com slash feedback. Thanks for listening. If you like this episode, we hope you'll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast until next time. Keep teaching, keep learning and stay safe.