Cultivating STEM field interest in diverse high school student populations – one college student’s Ex Ed journey
Symone Reid UA ’15 and Jim Stellar
SR was a major in biochemistry and molecular biology and a senior when we first met. Like me, she was first interested in pursuing medical school but shifted. Her current focus is now on education and particularly in getting diverse students into STEM fields. She is currently volunteering at the Albany High School and we two (as Provost and Alumna) are exploring ways to connect UAlbany STEM undergraduates to local high school students. That is the Experiential Education topic about which we want to write. To get started, SR, could you tell us a bit about what you do at the high school in the volunteer position?
For well over five months now, I have been volunteering at Albany High School so that I could get my feet wet, and place myself into an environment that I knew I would be spending a rich portion of my life. I volunteer as a Mathematics tutor twice a week, teaching in classrooms where class sizes are usually large, and teachers seem to need more help. Usually, they place me in classes that have a harder time understanding the material. There are times when I will walk around the classroom after the teacher has explained the concept and work on problems with the students or just make sure that the students understand it. Sometimes, when I notice that there’s a specific student or a small group of students that seem to be having a really hard time with a topic, I will dedicate a large portion of the class time to them, so that they do not fall too far behind and lose all their confidence in that section. Last academic semester, I went to five different classrooms with five different teachers. This semester, I attend four class periods with three different teachers.
Having never taught high school (my sister did), this seems like a standard practice but a powerful experience for you. Could you describe what it felt like to go over the last 5 months from novice to being comfortable yourself in this environment?
I remember in the beginning feeling weird, because I’ve never tutored high school students before this time, and sometimes I am mistaken for a student! So the first phase was getting used to the environment and trying to remember what high school students in this time of their lives are like. Eventually, after building different relationships with students, I became more and more comfortable with them, and now when I occasionally go into a new classroom, I feel more confident in my ability to assess where they fall in the class, and who seems to need help, and who just needs simple corrections.
Could we shift now to you telling me from your observations of your Albany High School students what you see as the barriers to their entry into STEM fields in college?
First, I would like to say that at this school, there seems to be a lot of barriers that are preventing students from entry into any college, regardless of whether they would like to pursue STEM or not. However, based off what I see so far, the classes are so large, and there is little attention given to each student, and so many students consistently fall behind. These classes are hard enough compared to others, and the stigma behind the STEM field for most students only adds insult to injury. Once students fall behind, it seems to be more of a challenge to get back up to pace, unless students are self-motivated to catch back up. Many students always complain about hating their math courses, or hating their science courses, and this is usually because they have a hard time understanding what to them may be new or difficult material. At some point, to most students, they are just focused on how to get through the material, as opposed to the beauty that can be unlocked within it.
Finally, could you now talk about your own journey and how you decided on a STEM field and what attracted you to then shift to something in education.
I have always loved asking questions, and I am a huge nature lover, and I can’t remember a time not wanting to know why or how all the wonders of the earth came to be what they are now. Maybe it was because I had the time to think about all of this, as I grew up in Jamaica. Upon emigrating from there, I continued to question so much, and science and math were definitely my favorite subjects throughout high school. It was no surprise that I would be studying that in college. What stunned me was my interest in education. That came about starting with the documentary I watched in the 11th grade known as ‘Waiting for Superman’. That moved me to think more about my environment and what privileges I had compared to other minorities that grew up in the same city I lived in. Over a period of five years, I became more increasingly exposed to the disparities within education, not just racially, but systematically. Initially my goal in life became being a doctor or PA, while working indirectly to help out with education. That was the plan until a year ago.
I started thinking (and eventually feeling) that my purpose in life fell alongside education, and a very monumental person in my life told me that you should always follow your heart. That even though the road may look scarier, it will all be worth it. That’s what led me to volunteering, and now, here I am.
One of the principles about which we write of how one makes decisions is that many of them are made in a limbic part of the brain to which conscious awareness does not seem to have direct access. To make this point, we often cite the work of David Eagelman (Incognito) and Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and point out that the results of unconscious decision enters our awareness through a feeling such as “this decision feels right” or “I can do this task.” When it comes to diverse populations in science fields, for example, the impact of a role model who is close in age and from their diverse group can be very powerful, particularly if that person shows up repeatedly, clearly cares, and projects confidence. SR’s work illustrates how a college student can potentially have an impact on high school students and how a university can build programs of public engagement around such service activities. It also illustrates the potential impact on the college student themselves and shows that the activity is also experiential education to the university. Thus the university can help itself while it helps the community.