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Two initiatives from U.Va. doctors promote STEM amongst underrepresented youth during pandemic

Through STEM kits and an educational picture book about the pandemic, University doctors are fighting systemic racial barriers during the coronavirus pandemic

<p>The STEM kits —&nbsp;which are meant to provide science resources to young people of color so they can engage in STEM studies— include basic supplies, such as a thermometer, measuring tape, scissors, Scotch tape and measuring cups.&nbsp;</p>

The STEM kits — which are meant to provide science resources to young people of color so they can engage in STEM studies— include basic supplies, such as a thermometer, measuring tape, scissors, Scotch tape and measuring cups. 

University doctors have been hard at work on projects aimed at fighting underlying systemic barriers — both in education and resource access — that contribute to the lack of diversity seen in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

In one project, Assoc. Prof. of anesthesiology Ebony Jade Hilton and Leigh-Ann Webb, assistant professor of emergency medicine, co-authored the book “We’re going to be O.K.” to teach children how to stay safe during the pandemic while simultaneously promoting representation in STEM. Additionally, University pediatric gastroenterologist Sana Syed is working alongside Charlottesville City Schools to distribute STEM kits to over 1,500 elementary-aged children who otherwise have no access to STEM supplies at home.

The systemic barriers which these projects aim to fight coincide with diversity statistics from the University Health System, which reveal the severity of underrepresentation within STEM fields. According to Syed, the national average of faculty members from underrepresented minorities in the field of medicine is 7.19 percent while only 5.27 percent of the University’s School of Medicine are from underrepresented minorities, according to data from the University’s Diversity Dashboard from September 2020 — which was released early to The Cavalier Daily by Syed. This marginalization at the University faculty level reflects an urgent call-to-action to close this gap for future generations.

In the short span of 10 days, Hilton and Webb wrote “We’re going to be O.K.” for the COVID-19 Children's eBook Competition hosted by Emory Global Health Institute. The colorful children’s book was illustrated by Ashleigh Corrin Webb, 2020 Ezra Jack Keats award-winning illustrator  and Webb’s sister-in-law. 

The story aims to educate young children about the pandemic through the eyes of a Black boy named Parker. Like many real-life students, Parker’s daily routine changes when the pandemic strikes and his science class presentation moves online. In the book, it is implied that both of Parker’s parents are doctors, so Parker learns about the science behind the pandemic from his mother, who also shares tips on keeping himself and others around him safe. Activity pages in the back of the book encourage children to journal about their feelings with an “I get to” section to help children focus on everything they still have the opportunity to do, despite what the pandemic has taken away.

The book received an honorable mention in the Emory competition and is available in English, Spanish, and soon, Arabic. All versions of the book, which was designed to be shared with youth, can be found under the resources tab on the website for GOODSTOCK Consulting, LLC, Hilton’s consulting business.

Hilton and Webb are not the only University faculty raising awareness for the lack of diversity in the STEM fields. Syed also recognized the importance of educating children in the STEM field from an early age, which is why she has devoted her spare time to fundraising for STEM boxes. 

According to the initiative’s GoFundMe page, the STEM kits — which are meant to provide science resources to young people of color so they can engage in STEM studies— include basic supplies, such as a thermometer, measuring tape, scissors, Scotch tape and measuring cups.  

Even though Syed’s STEM box fundraiser has exceeded its goal of $30,000 for kit assembly, there is an ongoing need for additional funds to expand the initiative, and as a result, it is still accepting donations. The next phase of the project will take the form of an after school mentoring program that meets in person, yet socially distanced for an hour each week. 

Syed’s involvement with STEM kits is a direct response to the fear that the pandemic will further deter the STEM education of children from underrepresented groups, who may not have access to basic scientific materials in their own households. 

Similar to Syed’s aim to increase STEM interest, Hilton and Webb’s “We’re going to be O.K.” also fosters a love of STEM. Hilton noted that the best way to peak a child’s interest in STEM is to introduce them to these concepts early on in life.

“It is as simple as exposure, which is again why in the beginning of the book, there was no hesitation in my mind to say that we are not going to call this virus anything but what its scientific name is,” Hilton said. “Exposing kids early on to the scientific methods, that's the way you engage people to go into STEM.”

According to Hilton, a systemic barrier to educating underserved communities today is a ripple effect from the previous generation. Hilton  herself is the daughter of a single mother who never graduated from high school, who was in the third grade when schools were integrated and faced protesting parents and shotguns simply to enter her school building. 

“That was throughout her elementary school, and how does that influence trust and feeling safe in school?” Hilton said when discussing her mother’s experience. “The fact that Black people actually finished school and some even went to college, I think is a testimony to a strength that I don't know I have.”

Hilton explained that this is the crux of why people of color are not represented in STEM fields. If systemic barriers prevented underrepresented parents from finishing their own education, they may not be equipped to pass knowledge on to their own children as they never had the chance to acquire it. Therefore, Hilton said she has been brainstorming community engagement projects that would simultaneously teach STEM and life navigation skills to children and their parents. 

“We can't say, ‘Hey, parents show them!’ unless we teach the parents, too … so they can fuel each other and support each other and the parents can understand how they can support their children,” Hilton said. 

Despite the challenges that her mother faced in school, she exposed a young Hilton to science, allowing her to fall in love with it. This is why Hilton understands the importance of exposing pre-K kids to basic mathematics and science early on in life. 

“Every child has that potential to be great,” Hilton said. “It's just that we pick and choose which children to allow that greatness to flourish early on in life. If we're waiting until someone is in high school or college... we missed out on the most vulnerable and the most influential times in life.”

Both the STEM kits and the children’s book serve as reminders that to close the racial gaps seen in STEM education, initiatives must begin today within our own communities.

“Everybody talks about running a marathon and not overstretching yourself, but at this point it's a sprint,” Syed said. “If we are not agile and we don't move things around, get things done, this whole generation of kids will get left behind, and it will disproportionately affect underrepresented minorities.”