This year we will celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program! This milestone has me celebrating two decades of success and evolution while also asking: What must the next 20 years of Noyce look like to cultivate a national cadre of K-12 STEM teachers and teacher leaders equipped to support America’s richly diverse youth, young adults, and the future needs of our workforce?
Now, this is usually where I would launch into a well-honed set of arguments explicating the various economic, societal, and moral imperatives which make clear the need for America to tackle issues of equity and inclusion through a systemic transformation approach to cultivate a larger and more inclusive STEMM workforce. However, I am confident that you all, our ARISE Community, already know these arguments. Moreover, you have seen the real-life narratives play out before your very eyes within countless communities in the work that you have undertaken.
So, I will take a small departure from my usual soapbox to share a bit about why this issue is so important to me. Growing up in South Carolina, I began my formal education at Socastee Elementary, a Title I school in a lower-income suburb of Myrtle Beach. For those who know me, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I loved school. This was in no small part due to the enrichment and engagement I received from a set of incredible teachers, whose names I can still recall to this day (feel free to test me at the Noyce Summit this summer).
As the oldest child in a family where our mother attended one semester of college and our father was forced to exit high school after 9th grade (my grandparents required him to get a job at age 15 and financially contribute to the family to continue living at home), my parents made one thing very clear: their children must go to college. It was my mother who thoughtfully and frequently imprinted this goal on us by helping my sister and me to see opportunity gaps that she and my father faced without a college education.
While my sister and I grew up in similar circumstances, our paths through education were markedly different. At the time I chalked these differences to personality traits: my sister hated going to school and I loved it; it’s best not to talk to her in the morning and you might think I’ve had several cups of coffee the moment I wake up. Now that I have spent almost two decades researching the ways that institutional systems, policies, cultures, and processes promote and limit college student access, success, and equity, I have some informed ideas about the differences my sister and I experienced throughout our education pathways. Specifically, related to differences in gender and the amount of melanin in our skin.
Our father is three-quarters Native American (half Choctaw and quarter Cherokee), and while we were raised in what I would characterize as a culturally White household, there are certainly Native cultural aspects that I now recognize in our upbringing. For instance, when I came out to my father at age 25, he was quite unexpectedly okay with this news, saying that he now understood me to be two-spirited. To my memory, I have never had someone identify me as anything but White; though, some have commented that for a ginger, I tan well. The closest I have come to being seen accurately was an interaction in graduate school with an Indigenous faculty member who upon meeting me commented on my high cheekbones and asked if I had native family. My sister, however, is blessed with the golden olive skin of my father, aunts, and grandparents. Her experiences were marked by questions about where she’s from and, at times, being labeled Latina.
After years of encouragement, my sister enrolled in a community college and with additional prodding went on to a four-year institution as a biology major. I do not know the exact experiences that informed my sister’s diminished academic self-efficacy, but I know with certainty that outcome was present. I watched as she wrestled with imposter syndrome and stereotype threats. She eventually left Biology and became a Psychology major, believing the required math and science coursework was out of reach for her.
I can’t help but wonder if my sister’s journey could have been different if she had been taught by a Noyce Scholar alumnus or a Noyce Master Teacher. Would a K-12 science or math curriculum that included diverse examples of scholars have helped her see herself as a scientist? Would a Noyce Scholar Alumnus have nominated her to attend the same “Mom, I want to be a Scientist” camp in 5th grade that I attended? Would having had even one Indigenous faculty member helped her navigate the complex interpersonal family relationships that many Native students experience if they choose to go to college and are sometimes seen as cutting themselves off from their family? I would love to tell you it was my superior intellect that accounted for the differences in educational opportunities and experiences (especially because I’m asking my sister to read and approve this blog before publishing); however, I can tell you in complete truth – that is not the case, my sister is brilliant.
The Future of K-12 STEMM Teacher Preparation: Innovation is Everything
Is it possible for us to prototype the K-12 STEMM teacher workforce that we must cultivate in the next 20 years of the Noyce Program? Absolutely! As Robert Noyce said, “Innovation is everything.” The past 20 years of research and practice have provided a wealth of knowledge and a deep understanding of the praxis needed to cultivate a scientifically literate society. We know that nurturing children’s innate abilities to explore and discover is essential in early education, but many children lack access to the formal and informal STEMM learning experiences that inspire further education and careers in these fields. As such, we must work with districts and states to increase both the amount of time that students spend learning science and mathematics and the number of accessible, high-quality science and mathematics classes. And achieving this goal will only be possible with programs like Noyce that equip a diverse cadre of STEM majors to be highly qualified teachers. We must leverage education research capacity to develop new standards that define excellent education as inclusive, multi-cultural, assessment-driven, and delivered utilizing the most current evidence-based pedagogical strategies. And we must develop incentive structures and other supports to recruit and retain teachers from a wide range of backgrounds to the profession. Of course, each of these “musts” have an array of intermediate steps, but these pillars provide a path forward for achieving the K-12 infrastructure our society demands.
Since coming onboard with AAAS in February of 2021, I have engaged our newly renamed ISEED Team (Inclusive STEMM Ecosystems for Equity & Diversity) in a comprehensive review of our STEMM education and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. We are co-constructing a strategic plan that leverages AAAS’ deep history in education and DEI and seeks to reimagine and reconstruct the continuum of education and career development to achieve a just, equitable, and inclusive STEMM enterprise that leverages society’s diversity to advance science and serve society. We will operationalize that vision through two strategic objectives: (1) Building the capacity of organizations to use a systemic and equity-focused lens across their STEMM education, innovation, research, and workforce development efforts; and (2) Building the capacity of individuals to access and thrive within the STEMM education and workforce continuum.
Our AAAS Noyce/ARISE Initiative is one of several programs within ISEED that embody both objectives. As we enter the 20th year of the Noyce program, we invite you to join us as we seek to build the organizational capacity of STEMM Teacher Preparation programs across the country through commissioned research papers, synthesis of evidence-based promising practices, and wide dissemination of innovations. We also invite you to join us as we seek to build the capacity of Noyce Scholars and Master Teachers to access, navigate, and thrive within STEMM pathways and significantly impact students like my sister.
You’re probably wondering what happened to that brilliant young woman who thought she couldn’t do advanced math or science coursework? This May she’ll receive her Board Certified Assistant Behavioral Analyst certificate conferred by the University of South Carolina as she continues to deepen her work to support children with autism in formal and informal learning environments… I told you she’s brilliant.