Seventeen middle-school girls recently completed “Celebrating the Strengths of Black Girls,” a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) program for racial and ethnic minority girls in the St. Louis region.
Women of color are underrepresented in STEM, but few programs exist to address the problem. Sheretta T. Butler-Barnes, PhD, created the pilot program to learn what might enhance black girls’ mathematics beliefs and performance.
Butler-Barnes is an assistant professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work who researches structural racism and inequalities in education and youth development. She also is faculty director of the Collaboration on Race, Inequality, and Social Mobility in America (CRISMA), based at the Center for Social Development (CSD).
“I look at school-based racial discrimination and how those things impact boys and girls,” Butler-Barnes says. “What we see is a lot of research dedicated only to black boys, and so this kind of leaves black girls invisible. What I wanted to do was create this program for STEM that centered on girls’ experiences.”
This past summer, three days a week from June 5 to July 14, Butler-Barnes exposed 17 middle-school girls of color to an intensive STEM-based curriculum. The curriculum includes lessons on historical contributions of women of color in STEM, Egyptian contributions to mathematics, structural inequality, study skills in mathematics, real-world “Hidden Figures” from the book and movie, the academic vocabulary necessary to communicate mathematical concepts, and more. CSD provided funds for a curriculum writer, who is a chemistry teacher in East Saint Louis.
So far, the pilot has served 60 girls. This summer’s program was the fifth session, and it was the second with Girls Inc. as a partner. Washington University’s Institute for School Partnership has supported the program for the past four years, providing funds for supplies, space and student teachers. In addition, Erik Herniksen, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, and the Young Scientist Program at the School of Medicine have provided support by donating time, supplies and space.
“What I’m learning is that it’s very important for children of color to see themselves within the literature, within the problems, within history books, within lessons,” she says, “because that lets them know that it is attainable.”
Butler-Barnes, who grew up in Detroit, says she always liked science and math. When she was in middle school, her parents enrolled her in a program similar to the one she leads today. “I’ve always been told to pay it forward, so that’s just something that I’m doing,” she says.
In November, Butler-Barnes is applying for a research grant from the National Science Foundation. She hopes to get funding to see how well the program is working.
In “some of our small findings, we’ve found their self-esteem has increased,” Butler-Barnes says. “They feel more confident in math. And they really feel like the lessons empower them not only as a person of color but also as a girl of color.”