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Researcher: Minority STEM students shoulder burden in racialized learning structure

Researcher Ebony Omotola McGee talks about her book "Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation," during an Illinois State University virtual event Friday afternoon.
Researcher Ebony McGee talks about her book, "Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation," during an Illinois State University virtual event Friday afternoon.

Minority students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields face an unfair expectation to shoulder institutionalized racism, according to one researcher specializing in those areas.

“I really think that we should stop asking (minority) students, faculty, staff to be more resilient and more gritty” than their peers, said Vanderbilt University’s Ebony McGee. The electrical engineer-turned-academic focuses on diversity and STEM education. The Washington Post earlier this month published McGee's opinion piece on the topic.

“Without dismantling the structures that create the necessity for unending levels of resilience and grit, what we’re actually celebrating is Black and brown high achievers' obligation to work themselves to death,” she said, detailing study findings that those students face unhealthy stress levels.

On Friday afternoon, Illinois State University hosted McGee’s virtual talk about findings from her book, “Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation.” About 75 people attended remotely.

Black students aren’t the only minorities asked to shoulder STEM’s institutionalized racism, she said. On the other end of the spectrum, Asian students face unreal expectations that STEM comes easy to that demographic, she said.

As part of her talk, the researcher also talked about how racism is woven throughout STEM’s academic structure, including its imbalanced funding, tokenized mentor philosophy, and more.

Historically Black colleges and universities' STEM programs are severely underfunded; most Black women who seek STEM graduate degrees leave college with more than $70,000 debt, said McGee.

Minority students pursuing STEM fields often are expected to choose between social justice or traditional science-driven careers. That's something McGee wants to change: she wants students to know they aren't mutually exclusive. She cited one U.S. doctor using robotics to help cerebral palsy patients. McGee said pursuing STEM careers infused with an equity ethics model should be a path students are encouraged to follow.

The researcher encouraged faculty working in STEM to support minorities seeking academic positions in those fields, and to address racial disparity within their own curriculums.

For example, she said a case study on Flint, Mich., water issues could look at sociopolitcal factors, while also studying the science side of lead in water. A class on biomedical research could include a lesson on Henrietta Lacks, and issues around patient consent.

She also said leaders in the fields shouldn’t operate in a history void.

The history of STEM is wrought with important stories that need to be shared, she said – including how during the time STEM’s university model was laying its foundations in the 1800s and 1900s, Black people were enslaved, and later facing Jim Crow laws. That created barriers to their entry into that knowledge base, said McGee.

After an early career in New York City as an electrical engineer, McGee left to pursue her mathematics education doctorate at University of Illinois at Chicago. Once in graduate school, she received several postdoctoral scholarships.

She’s co-founder of two organizations — Explorations in Diversifying Engineering Faculty Initiative (EDEFI), and Critical Quantitative and Mixed Methodologies Training for Underrepresented Scholars (ICQCM).

Sponsors of Friday’s talk included several ISU organizations, including the Illinois State University Foundation, and the Harold K. Sage Foundation.

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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