Dr. Carlotta A. Berry says she’s a unicorn, at least in terms of the work she does. She says STEM academia Black people are rare.
“We are such unicorns and there are so few of us,” says Berry, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology based in Terre Haute, Ind. She has been a professor for nearly 20 years, starting as an assistant professor in Tennessee State University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2003.
At Rose-Hulman, she is the Lawrence J. Giacoletto Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and co-director of the school’s robotics minor. Berry is also co-founder of two organizations centered around the experience on Black people in STEM: Black in Engineering, launched in July 2020, and Black in Robotics, launched in August 2020.
In July 2021, Berry founded her own educational consulting company, NoireSTEMinist LLC, through which she promotes women and people of color pursuing STEM degrees and careers and educates audiences beyond those found in her classroom.
A through line and a big part of Berry’s work has to do with breaking what she sees as the mold for the kind of person who does STEM, she says.
“A big part of me sharing what I do and about the theory of what I do is showing people that it’s not just for supernerds. It’s not just for MacGyver. It’s not just Dilbert. It’s not just Sheldon. Anyone can do this,” Berry says. “So I’m building a community but I’m also changing the face of STEM, because they’re seeing me being vocal and outspoken, so I’m breaking that mold of who they can connect with being a scientist, who can do technology, who can do engineering. There is no one certain way that it has to happen.”
Berry employs non-traditional ways of educating audiences as part of NoireSTEMinist. One approach she has taken is explaining basic electrical engineering concepts to middle school students using kitchen supplies in her YouTube series, “Kitchen Table Circuits,” a product born from helping her daughter with schoolwork.
“My daughter just finished eighth grade, and they were studying basic circuits. And she was saying she didn’t understand series and parallel,” Berry says. “So, I took out some kitchen table utensils to explain to her how to do this with . . . plastic knives and spoons.
“So, one of the things . . . is figuring out ways to explain electrical concepts, which may be difficult to understand if I start pulling out the calculus and all of that,” she continues. “But if I could just grab something around my house and help you make those connections, that gives you an entry point beyond the one that we typically have.”
Another project Berry put out is “Robot Slam Poetry,” in which she raps and performs poetry about robotics concepts in approximately one-minute long videos – there are currently four.
“The main premise of it is, I’m being silly but I’m teaching something as well,” Berry says. “So, if you sit through that one- or two-minute video, yeah, I’m doing some poetry and all of that, but you’re also learning something. And I think a big part of the new push for STEM is you have to marry it to the arts.”
Berry’s most recent endeavor has been the most novel. She says people don’t see Black women in STEM in the media they consume. To normalize seeing Black women and Black people in STEM, she writes romance novels with Black women in STEM as the main characters.
Berry’s first fictional book, Elevated Inferno, was released July 1. She says there’s more to come as she is currently writing the second book in a series of romance novels. The goal isn’t to explain complex technical concepts, she says, rather the goal is to have media with Black people in STEM living their everyday lives.
Berry describes herself as multidisciplinary and intersectional, and stresses that the different facets that make up who she is – a woman, a Black person, an engineer, an academic, a professor – cannot be separated from one another.
“All of those overlapping layers inform who I am,” Berry says. “I cannot separate one of them out and say today I’m operating as a professor. I bring my whole self into the classroom. So when I go into that classroom to teach my students, they have to understand who I am and all of my experiences. If I’m teaching them about robotics or artificial intelligence, I have to talk about [how] there can be bias in AI, there can be discrimination. If I’m teaching engineering design, diverse teaming is important. Because when you have teams of students who are not diverse, their solutions are not quite as impactful, relevant, etc.”
Berry holds a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from Vanderbilt University; a master’s in electrical engineering and control systems from Wayne State University; a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology; and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Spelman College.
A self-described “Black girl nerd,” Berry continues this pursuit of diversifying STEM. She says that she sees it as a universal responsibility.
“Diversity is everyone’s responsibility,” says Berry. “And there is more than one way to diversify STEM. And we have to be creative and never stop looking for ways to make engineering reflect the world that we live in. If engineers are going to design processes and solutions for a diverse and global world, then the engineering professor needs to look diverse and global as well.”