How do you entice a bunch of squirming children to settle down, take turns asking questions, introduce themselves and explain how to program a robot? Engage them in hands-on science. That is precisely what took place on Friday, March 11, 2016 at Howard University as part of Black Press Week in Washington, D.C.
The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) Foundation held a ground-breaking summit “Best Practices in STEM” with a Fiber Optics inventor, two NASA Roboticists and a women’s robotics team. Sound routine? Anything but, since every person presenting was African American and the audience was comprised of Howard University undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, and over 80 Black and Hispanic students from local schools representing grades 3-6.
The NNPAF launched what it hopes to be a signature program of the Foundation (http://www.nnpafoundation.org/nnpaf-programs), in its role as the educational and capacity building arm of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which is the trade organization for over 200 Black newspapers and publications nationally with a reach of 20 million readers weekly.
Sponsored by American Petroleum Institute (API), with the support of Microsoft, represented by Fernando Hernandez, Director of Microsoft Supplier Diversity, NNPA Foundation established ties with Howard University, the alma mater of panelist Dr. Edward Tunstel, Sr. Roboticist, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and former team leader with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, and the Washington, DC Office of Contracting and Procurement, and the Ambassador Horace G. Dawson Scholars program to ensure that STEM REACH 2020 would, in fact, reach the appropriate audiences.
And right now, research suggests that introducing children to STEM early on is the only possible solution to the predicted talent gap that will occur in STEM related occupations over the next decade if something isn’t done quickly. JD Chesloff in his commentary on “STEM Must Start in Early Childhood” advocates getting a head start.
Why?, because the scientific approach is in alignment with young children’s developmental stage at an early age. Says Chesloff, “… Young children are natural-born scientists and engineers. Like STEM, investment in early-childhood education is a workforce-pipeline issue.”
The number of Black and Hispanic children who want to or believe they can pursue careers in science, math, engineering or technology (STEM) is exceedingly small. Why? Because they rarely see scientists or engineers or mathematicians or technology experts who look like them. And stereotypes among teachers and counsellors (who nationally are predominantly white, even though over 50% of school children today are non-white), may discourage them because of long-held stereotypes.
On March 11, 2016, the ground shifted and a majority Black and Hispanic audience ranging from third graders to college and graduate students got to meet an array of Black men and women giants in science.
Present was a Black man who has patents for the technology he has created, Black roboticists – experts who helped design the robots for America’s Mars expeditions, a Hispanic man in charge of ensuring that women and minority business enterprises have a fair shot at securing Microsoft vendor contracts and who sponsors initiatives like the NNPA Foundation’s STEM REACH 2020 to ensure there is a diverse future talent pool as well as the robotics team of all (Black) women from Spelman College who taught the children the basics of programming a robot named SPICE.
And the beauty of it all is that the children didn’t have to sit still. Moving around, inquisitive, excited, they asked questions, participated in a programming game, learned the basics of flying a drone and saw technology parts built with Legos.
Their curiosity and energy aligns nicely with the scientific method of inquiry, research and investigation that the presenters hope will engage them enough to follow in the footsteps of Black and Hispanic giants.
And this is just the beginning; STEM is on the horizon. A day after the NNPA Foundation STEM Reach 2020 program ended, on March 12, 2016 hundreds gathered from Washington, DC, Virginia and Maryland to compete for the FIRST Robotics Competition sponsored by Northrop Grumman Corporation (https://www.firstchesapeake.org/).
STEM is on the rise in the Black and Hispanic community; and we say, bring it on!
(Part 2: What do Mars and the Macarena have in common?)
Irma McClaurin, PhD is an award-winning writer and poet, an activist anthropologist, diversity consultant and educator. Passion and a deep commitment to social justice and public science inform her writing. In 2015, the Black Press named her “Best Columnist.” She is the Insight News’ Culture and Education Editor and author of several books, articles and poetry. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org/@mcclaurintweets
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