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Faculty discuss diversity in STEM, a necessity

(Left) Vandana Singh, Folashadé Solomon, and Cara Pina at the "Young Nerds of Color" panel
Zachary Sorel / THE GATEPOST

By Emily Rosenberg, Associate Editor

By Raena Doty, Staff Writer

The Christa McAuliffe Center hosted five faculty members who discussed the play “Young Nerds of Color,” as a part of Mass STEM Week Oct. 19.

The five panelists were Wardell Powell, Education professor and Interim diversity and inclusion officer, Ishara Mills-Henry, Chemistry and Food Science professor, Folashadé Solomon, Education professor, Cara Pina, Biology professor and co-chair of the diversity and inclusion committee, and Vandana Singh, Environment, Society and Sustainability professor.

“Young Nerds of Color” is a play written by Melinda Lopez, which focuses on the struggles Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) students in STEM face, based on over 60 interviews with people currently in the field. The play was shown in digital format in the planetarium.

The discussion began with the panelists sharing how they related to the play.

Singh moved from India to the United States to earn her Ph.D, she said, and always felt “indebted” to the African American Civil Rights movement.

Mills-Henry said the film resonated with her because she went to a historically Black college for her undergraduate degree, but to a majority-white institution for graduate school and had two very different experiences. Powell said what stood out to him, as a Black male educator in science, is that he does not encounter a lot of men of color also interested in pursuing STEM education. He said in his five years of teaching STEM education at Framingham State, he could not recall training any Black male students.

He shared a story of when he was at a post-baccalaureate conference, and two white women assumed he was only visiting, rather than attending for the same purposes they were.

Pina said students who are not represented in science tend to “see science in a different way.” She said a student’s background influences how they view science and that there is no neutral way to do science.

Solomon said there is a need for various backgrounds in STEM in order to overcome the problems that can be solved through science.

She added, children often lose their enthusiasm for science after a certain age, but there are interdisciplinary ways to help them stay involved, including music.

“I tend to start thinking about ‘how do we keep people connected to seeing the science around them in their everyday lives and their experiences and how do they keep that enthusiasm?’” she asked.

Pina said she encounters interdisciplinary fields every day in her work. She said for some people, connecting science to another discipline can be easy, while for others they cannot connect the dots.

“We need a more diverse group of people in science because some people are going to see this and others aren't. And if you're excluding the people who see this, then we're excluding this whole opportunity to do interdisciplinary science,” she said.

Singh stressed the importance of BIPOC voices as a way to expand people’s understanding of science.

“When we have diversity we can have different perspectives - different paradigms - and we know that science progresses not only with the continuous addition of knowledge to a pre-existing body of knowledge, but through paradigm shifts - through revolutionary breaks with the knowledge when we have to reconceptualize everything,” she said.

“We're overdue for a paradigm shift in the sciences and beyond. And I think that one way to get there is to have real genuine diversity in the sciences,” she said.

The panel discussed a clip of the play about code switching, defined in the play as switching between personas because of outside pressure to do so, and how this relates to BIPOC students in STEM.

One example of code switching in the play was an experience from one of the people who had been interviewed during the creation of the play. Before leaving for the interview, this person was stopped by his wife, who asked what they were going to do with the interview and if it would be recorded.

“You know about your image. It's like, what if this becomes a crazy play, that people write really, really terrible things about it in the paper? And then your name is associated with it? What do you think that would do to you?” the wife asked.

The play’s actors also discussed the pressures of representing everyone of their race and culture, and how that contributes to the pressure to code switch.

“You have to be someone else because you're, like, representing your entire race. It feels like in some settings, you have to leave a lot of who you are at home,” an actor said.

The play also discussed the difficulties BIPOC students face when they aren’t given the same guidance, resources, and opportunities as other students.

“Like, I had the dean in undergrad, and the dean, she asked me to work in her lab during the summertime, but my parents were like, ‘Well, is she gonna pay you? Because if she's not gonna pay you, you know, you can’t do it,’” an actor said.

Pina said that this experience was similar to her own, because as a first-generation college student, she did not know what types of opportunities she needed as a student to be successful in her career. She went to her classes and her work study job, but she did not get lab experiences, and this set her back a lot.

“Even when we're trying to be inclusive of populations, those populations are already behind,” she said.

Singh shared an example of a Black student who would always come late to her class because he was taking care of his siblings and making sure they got to school on time.

She said faculty can help by reaching out and forming connections with students who don’t reach out on their own.

“What I'm going to do, instead of saying, ‘Oh, don't do that,’ is to make sure that he has my extra time and my support,” she said.

Pina said, “What has been really important for me is to think about how teaching is done, and thinking about what policies affect what students.”

She used the example of the student who took care of his younger siblings to illustrate how classroom policy can help or hurt BIPOC students.

“If you have a very strict late policy, where you are more than five minutes late, you are absent from the class and there's an attendance requirement - that population of students is not going to do well,” Pina said.

The panel then discussed a clip of the film which repeats the phrase “I see you,” and what educators can say to encourage BIPOC students in the STEM field.

Pina said it is important to make the message known to BIPOC students in STEM that the struggle is not because of their own doing. “This space wasn’t built for you,” she said, referring to the STEM field.

Solomon said it is important to think about self care and finding community. “The more of our full selves we can bring, the better off we’ll be.”

Powell said he visits student teachers, and some teachers are working in districts where there are “garbage bags covering the window” with 35 students and only one teacher. Then there are affluent schools where there are 15 students, a paraprofessional, a teacher, and iPad carts, in addition to the student teacher, he said.

“Even though they’re the same 10th graders, the curriculum over here is going to be different … while at the same time they’re all taking the same state-wide math assessment,” he added.

When students come to Framingham State and other universities, the difference in college preparation is not seen and STEM faculty are the first to question why students are not prepared, Powell said.

“They talk about rigor as if it were a static thing. I think for us to get to that point of ‘I see you,’ you really need to look at our thoughts as instructors, and be mindful of how these thoughts create all these biases,” he added.

Singh said faculty need to be aware that when they see a student struggling, it is not necessarily because they are unprepared. “What they see is inequality in society. What they see is oppression in society.”

She said in her courses, she has used physics to stress the idea of belonging and the “right to belong in space you occupy.

“What I would say to a young nerd of color is that you are awesome … not only are you important in science, but you are necessary in science,” Singh said.



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