By Maya Pottiger | Word In Black | Sacramento Observer
(WIB) – Last year, an elementary school principal in rural Mississippi wanted to get her students excited about science. So, after receiving grant funding, she bought robots for third and fourth graders to assemble and then held a white coat ceremony for them, complete with their names embroidered on the jackets.
Though she’s been principal for three years and has worked in schools for the last decade, Alicia Conerly, Ed.S., comes from a science background.
“I know and understand that if you don’t pique the interest of children early, the odds of them, once they hit middle school into high school, if they don’t already like it or find something that they enjoy about it, they won’t go into STEM career fields,” Conerly says. “So I wanted to change that.”
It worked. Every “STEM Pioneer” successfully assembled and programmed their robot. And the reception, complete with a photographer and certificates, motivated younger students in the school.
But without the grant — and donors for the ceremony — this wouldn’t have been possible. And Black students, especially from a young age, need to be exposed to engaging STEM activities to understand the options they have and see themselves in the field.
White coat ceremony. Photograph courtesy of Gray’s Southern Image Photography.
Combatting a Lack of Representation
Though we’re finding representation in superheroes and mermaids, it’s harder to come by in STEM. Of course, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith were key figures in creating the lifesaving COVID vaccines, but even they didn’t get the celebrity treatment.
As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. Conerly was the first Black administrator in her building, and as soon as she became principal, students kept telling her they wanted to grow up and be a principal.
“There is not enough representation on any level, and especially in the STEM career fields,” says Conerly, who is also a member of the National Science Teaching Association.
A new Pew Research Center poll of Black Americans found that Black adults cited seeing more Black high achievers in STEM fields as the most effective way to get young Black people interested in the field. And about a quarter of respondents said having a Black teacher in these areas while in high school would also help. And, as of 2019, only 8% of science teachers in the United States were Black.
When identifying reasons that young people don’t pursue college degrees in STEM, half of Black adults said they don’t have access to quality education, and they don’t have mentors or adults encouraging them to go into these fields.