How can we support Black students in the early stages of their STEM journeys?

September 1, 2021

DeLean Tolbert Smith’s latest research is digging into the role families and non-classroom experiences can play in tackling STEM’s equity problems.

A collage graphic featuring UM-Dearborn professor DeLean Tolbert Smith wearing a t-shirt that says "STEM is the new Black," surrounded by two middle school students engaged in STEM learning and shapes representing gears.
A collage graphic featuring UM-Dearborn professor DeLean Tolbert Smith wearing a t-shirt that says "STEM is the new Black," surrounded by two middle school students engaged in STEM learning and shapes representing gears.
Photo credit: Allison Shelley/Alliance for Excellent Education via Flickr

We can’t say we were surprised when we heard in August that UM-Dearborn Assistant Professor DeLean Tolbert Smith had been awarded a prestigious $700,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award. Her work on underrepresented groups in college engineering programs is fascinating stuff, and the new NSF grant, which is aimed at supporting early-career faculty who are emerging leaders in their fields, is going to allow her to dig deeply into another set of understudied questions in that space. 

Smith’s take on this topic has always struck us as fresh: “A deficit perspective of underrepresentation in STEM often leads scholars to focus and place blame on communities of color and the need for them to have the same resources as white communities,” Smith explained during a recent conversation. “No doubt, we should be striving to fix the inequalities related to capital. But what I’m interested in is looking at the ways that Black families are already acting as cultural assets, and identifying those practices and elevating them so more families can actively support young people who are showing interest in STEM subjects.”

Part of the reason Smith is interested in studying family dynamics is that many Black students who go on to work in STEM careers often count early non-classroom, family-based experiences as critical parts of their journeys. Yet Smith says we still don’t have a thorough understanding of what early engineering experiences within Black families look like, especially the specific dynamics and practices that proved pivotal to stoking students' interest and success. The gap in knowledge about this stage of the “STEM pathway” means that most programs aimed at tackling underrepresentation tend to focus on late-stage educational experiences. But Smith says college recruitment of Black students during their senior years of high school, or programs aimed at supporting them once they get to campus, are destined to be inadequate for “getting engineering programs to look like America” if no one invested in a kid’s STEM interest back in middle school or earlier. “That’s the time we know that girls and boys are declaring to themselves or to their families that they have confidence or discomfort in math and science,” she says. And the challenge is we simply don’t have an adequate picture of what their early STEM lives really look like.

One of the most interesting parts of Smith’s new study is that it doesn’t rely on qualitative interviews of adults reflecting on their childhood experiences. Rather, she intends to map these experiences as they’re actually happening. To do this, she's partnered with the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP) to recruit 45 Black middle school students, plus a family member, to participate in a 20-hour weekend STEM and innovation program at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. But she’s augmenting the standard curriculum with culturally relevant material, like stories of undersung Black innovators and inventors. After the families complete the program, they’ll use what they’ve learned to design original projects for the Invention Convention, a global K-12 innovation program. And here’s the really cool thing: Any time the students and their families work on their designs and inventions at home, Smith is going to ask them to record their sessions. This will allow her to capture hundreds of hours of fly-on-the-wall footage of students and families in their midst of their STEM journeys. 

So what does Smith hope this intimate portrait of Black STEM family life can provide? Since it’s such an understudied space, all kinds of things really. In particular, though, she’ll be looking to see whether families are deploying lessons they’ve learned from the curriculum as they move through their design processes — including the historical lessons of Black innovators. And she’s also excited to observe how families without someone directly tied to a STEM field might leverage a variety of human resources to give students the support they need. A tech-savvy older sister, a neighbor who’s great at fixing things, a buddy who’s good at math, a parent who’s a strong motivator, and a story of a famous Black inventor, could be a recipe of support that’s more complex but plenty effective — and possibly more replicable for other families.

“Unfortunately, the history of the United States includes the systemic belittling of the experiences and intellect of Black people to make us think that we are not intelligent and cannot contribute in innovative or creative ways,” Smith explains. “And over time, this contributes to the underrepresentation of Black people in certain creative and technical fields. With regard to STEM, that now means you have many Black families who might not know or be directly connected to someone working in STEM. And so I hope that by restoring families’ historical connection to Black innovators, we can create a kind of pseudo-mentorship. A student might not know an engineer yet, but they can draw on the example of someone like Madam CJ Walker or Eijah McCoy and see themselves in that long lineage of innovation.”

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Story by Lou Blouin. If you’re a member of the media and would like to interview Assistant Professor DeLean Tolbert Smith about this topic, drop us a line at UMDearborn-News@umich.edu and we’ll put you in touch.

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