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New Approaches To STEM Engage Traditionally Underrepresented Students

When Dr. Felesia Stukes joined the faculty at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in 2017, she was the first Black computer science faculty member in the HBCU’s 150-year history. Today, she is working hard to lay a foundation for her students to become future colleagues.

Part of that process requires understanding the reasons why students of color all too often choose not to pursue STEM fields despite interest and ability.

Dr. Edmund AdjapongDr. Edmund Adjapong

“One of the things that has been found in research is basically they don’t feel a sense of belonging,” says Stukes, an assistant professor in the School of Data Science.

Students of color may feel marginalized in a disproportionately White field. Likewise, women may still feel out of place in a room mostly filled with men. That’s why Stukes says she intentionally designs experiences and opportunities for JCSU students to feel included.

“One of my goals is to change the environment for Black and Latino students to make sure that inclusivity is intentional,” she says. “A lot of times, the women fall to the bottom of the applicant pool, so intentionally you actually choose them to participate. We don’t select just one but try to develop a small cohort and create a sense of community.”

Stukes is currently collaborating with Black computing faculty at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Howard University to form research groups designed to cultivate an inclusive environment for Black undergraduate students across the institutions. The project is funded by a grant from Google Research and seeks to encourage students to remain in STEM majors, graduate and go on to graduate school.

Similarly, Dr. Trachette L. Jackson, a University of Michigan mathematics professor, leads the Marjorie Lee Browne (MLB) Scholars Program, named for the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics at Michigan. The program is an enhanced option for the M.S. degree in either mathematics or applied and interdisciplinary mathematics that is designed to prepare students for continuing toward a Ph.D.

Dr. Felesia StukesDr. Felesia Stukes

“One of the most important things the MLB Scholars Program provides is focused and intentional mentoring,” says Jackson. “By engaging in effective faculty mentoring, we hope not only to directly encourage students to pursue doctoral education, but to provide the support they need to be successful in academia.”

Students need to not only be able to see themselves in the field via mentors and role models who look like them, they also need to be able to see their interests and experiences represented in STEM curriculum, says Dr. Edmund Adjapong, assistant professor of education and program director of the Program of Educational Studies at Seton Hall University (SHU).

One way he helps students see themselves in the curriculum is by using culturally relevant topics. A STEM professor, Adjapong is known for his work around hip-hop pedagogy.

“Recognizing that there are inequities and injustices in the STEM disciplines and leveraging hip-hop as an approach to teaching is one effective way of addressing some inequities in school,” says Adjapong, who notes that much of STEM education has been Eurocentric. “When we leverage hip-hop as a way to teach science and STEM in the classroom, students have the ability to create different experiences when it comes to learning the content. They can appreciate when science and STEM are taught in a more engaging way and manner.”

STEM in the real world

As STEM educators endeavor to engage students from traditionally underrepresented populations, they are emphasizing innovative approaches that explore intersections with the arts, humanities, business and sports.

Prior to the pandemic, Stukes oversaw a pilot program with seven JCSU students dubbed the DATA Bulls (the athletics program is the Golden Bulls) designed to

Dr. Trachette L. JacksonDr. Trachette L. Jackson

help students explore real‐world application of computer science through sports. Sports analytics utilizes data to analyze aspects of the sports industry, from player performance to business performance.

More recently, she has been working on a project with Fitbit, a consumer electronics and fitness company that has devices such as activity trackers and other wearable technology that measures data such as number of steps walked, heart rate and other personal metrics.

“There are so many things you can do with a Fitbit, in terms of data that comes off the device,” Stukes says.

“I asked my students, ‘What types of research questions would you be interested in pursuing?’ One example they came up with is they wanted to see if they could link some of the attributes that come off the device to a person’s mood. I was able to help them develop a research project around that kind of data.”

Projects like those will become more common at JCSU thanks to Stukes, who secured a planning grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a data science minor at JCSU. The minor will commence fall 2021. In January 2021, Stukes also received the IBM Academic Award for Social Computing Command Center: Innovating Undergraduate Data Science Curriculum. That has brought valuable assets to JCSU, which will enhance the data science minor and other programming.

Dr. Timothy M. Pinkston, George Pfleger Chaired Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, notes that while STEM fields remain grounded in the STEM disciplines, STEM’s influence and applicability are being felt across disciplines. Collaboration on pressing issues of the day is mutually beneficial.

“[The humanities] help enable us to develop and creatively express novel thoughts and ideas in understandable ways which, hopefully, appeal to our better human nature,” says Pinkston. “Advancements in STEM fields, including in computer science and engineering, help to facilitate the humanities in these and many other ways, including self-expression, by enabling broader dissemination of, and access to, information through innovative technology-based media platforms, as one simple example.”

For that reason, some people have begun preferring the acronym STEAM, which includes an “A” for arts, over STEM.

“We’re seeing more and more an increased need for incorporating ethical considerations in the development of new technology for useful and socially just/equitable purposes,” Pinkton adds.

Building for the Future

A lawsuit from the state of Maryland’s four HBCUs — Bowie State, Morgan State, Coppin State and University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — dating back to 2006 has finally been settled, with the state pledging $577 million in additional state funding over the next 10 years that will go toward high-demand STEM programs as well as scholarships and infrastructure.

Dr. Carl B. GoodmanDr. Carl B. Goodman

Dr. Carl B. Goodman, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Bowie State University (BSU), says the university already has some excellent STEM programs, but this funding will enable it to enhance and expand programming. The funds will also help BSU work toward its goal of becoming an R2 research institution.

“We’re looking at launching two new engineering programs,” says Goodman. “We’re looking to launch a data science program and we currently just got approved for a data analytics program. We also are looking at providing certificate programs in data analytics.”

Funds will also go toward the health sciences at BSU. The already strong nursing program will be enhanced, and institution leaders are exploring the possibility of adding a bioinformatics program, which  would allow BSU to build greater connections with local community colleges with bioinformatics programs. The university is preparing to launch seven new online degree programs, four of which will be in STEM fields, including computer science and management information systems.

“Bowie State is a comprehensive, liberal arts teaching institution,” Goodman says. “We definitely have a keen interest in the interdisciplinary approach.”

Adjapong says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out extensive creativity and innovation, and he hopes these approaches will continue. Today’s undergraduate and graduate students are ready to explore new concepts in STEM.

“Getting people to understand that science is truly interdisciplinary,” he says. “If we’re more inclusive of the humanities, it allows us to be more creative. With the incorporation of the arts, the humanities and business, it allows us to look at issues, challenges and advances through a different vantage point and to ultimately create better solutions…that are inclusive for different groups and populations of people.”

“I would encourage educators to draw more connections between the lived experiences and everyday realities of students…and science,” he adds. “Particularly when it comes to Black and brown students, we can leverage science and STEM to address issues and inequities in our own communities.”

This article originally appeared in the July 8, 2021 edition of Diverse. Read it here.

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