A Dream Deferred

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore--

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over--

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


My interest in teaching and science outreach crystallized with NSF GK-12 Fellowship experiences in St. Louis. I was graduate student assigned as a Resource Scientist to a nearby public high school. I was responsible for co-designing lesson plans and delivering lessons for biology and environmental science classes. Science Fair project came around and there was big push to get all students involved. There was a very low participation rate, but since I was the classroom scientist, I was responsible to helping students develop science fair projects and getting them ready for the competition.

Some of the students came up with some really amazing ideas. Not only because they developed some great questions and hypotheses, but because the questions were personally relevant to them. Do cheaper brakes stop as quickly as more expensive breaks? Will cheaper brakes wear faster than more expensive ones? Are One-touch Diabetes testers as effective as traditional blood sugar testing devices that require more blood? The first two questions were posed by one of my boys – who declared his hatred of science daily, but he loved cars. The third question was posed by one of my girls who had diabetes and had to test her ‘sugar’ many times a day. Her grandmother had diabetes, too. She wanted to enlist her granny in her project.

However, like most of the other projects proposed by my students, these projects never happened. And what was more heart-breaking was that these kids interests in science (and the science fair) was dashed and never to be rekindled again. For kids like my students – inner-city kids from poor families (whether working-class or on welfare), average or below-average academic performance, some with behavior problems – interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) dies by 10th grade and one of three things kill the promise of opportunity.

  1. Lack of resources
  2. Benign discouragement by well-meaning adults
  3. Active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers

I witnessed all three during my time at Normandy Senior High School and the University of Missouri-St. Louis MO-STEP.

1. Lack of Resources

A majority of the projects proposed by students died because they did not have the resources to actually carry out the experiments. Really great science projects, the ones that place in the city-county wide fairs require money to buy supplies -- money that most of my students simply did not have. Although completing a science fair project is required for a grade, the school does not provide resources to get the project done. In fact, I don’t know of any public school that does that. Do you?

But perhaps more importantly, they needed guidance. Until recently, there was too little conversation around the actual science experiences of teachers. In struggling school districts, it is not uncommon to have a science teacher who has had no upper-level science courses. None, let alone actual research experience conducting research – which is what a science fair project is. My presence in the classroom addressed this need. However, most students resorted to very simple projects – which brand of paper towels were absorbent or how long it will take for sugar to dissolve in cold vs. hot water – because these projects were feasible. Plus, let’s not forget that this was about a grade, it didn’t matter if the question was creative enough, which gets to reason number 2.

2. Benign discouragement by well-meaning adults

I was teaching in the general science class and for these students the Science Fair was a hoop to jump through. No one expected these kids to actually do a science fair project, let alone a meaningful independent project. No one. Not the teachers, not the students themselves.

Let’s go back to the great science fair projects proposed my two students. Those were excellent proposals! I loved both of these ideas. Plus, the main objective of the program (and the reason I was there) was to engage kids in problem-based learning. Check. The director of our grant was a very generous man. I knew if I could get the kids to develop very, well-thought out protocols, then I could get him to subsidize the cost of much of the supplies or equipment for their projects, especially ones like these. Thereby eliminating the barrier of resources.

So, what happened? For the young man, his idea was shot down almost immediately. The teacher recommended that the young man do a project on windshield wiper fluid instead. I saw that young man’s face fall before she could complete the sentence. I had some reservations about the proposal, too – safety ones. Could he safely (and legally) ‘test the brakes’? He was making a very good case that he had an old family car that he worked on routinely, so he had a vehicle. It was as we were discussing ‘testing locations’ (i.e. drag strips) that the teacher interrupted with her suggestions. That was the end of that brilliant idea and he never participated so enthusiastically in class again.

3. Active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers

There was another student who proposed to test maze learning with her pet hamster. She was one my tough girls, don’t-get-in-my-face girls, ain’t-never-scared girls. Only 16 or 17, her life was already complicated: she was a parent and had lost both of her parents. But reading her well-designed protocol (she had the entire experiment designed: question, hypothesis and prediction), I was heartened. She didn’t have maze nor the obvious resources to get one. It just so happened that I did. One of the failed projects of my dissertation was ‘Multi-arm maze learning in prairie voles’. I told her that it was a great idea and that I have a maze that she could use, but that testing pets are definitely a no-no and you can’t do an experiment with just one subject. She frowned a little. Then I thought voles and hamsters are equivalent and I asked her if she was willing to do the experiment at the university and with my voles. She could run as many trials as she found the time to do. And she did. She did an amazing job.

Quite unexpectedly, she placed in the school fair and qualified for the county-wide Science Fair. I was so proud of her. But apparently, kids of her ilk were not expected to place. I got amazing push back from the honors biology teacher. She wasn’t forth coming about her placing, held out on giving the young lady her ribbon, and threw away her poster presentation and notebook at the end of the school fair. (Incidentally, an original notebook is a major part of the rubric for regional science fairs). And was completely reluctant to give me (or the teacher) the paperwork for her to compete in the regional science fair. As you can imagine, I was livid. But I leveraged my department’s resources to get another presentation printed and motivated her to re-write her notebook – as much as she could remember – and get her presentation ready for the regional competition. She didn’t place at this fair, but she represented her school well.

As a result of her fine performance (in my opinion) I decided to try to get her enrolled in an authentic research summer program for high school students. Each summer, I noticed high school students in the hallway working in science labs alongside graduate students and professors doing experiments. I approached the director of that program (which is housed in my department) and told him about my student. I asked how might she apply for this program; I thought it would be a great opportunity for her. He asked what school she attended. I told him and he exhaled. Then told me she had to have a very high GPA in order to get into the program. It’s a very competitive program. He didn’t ask about her grades or her performance with me. Until that conversation, I had hardly noticed that most of the students in that program came from wealthier school districts. That was the end of that conversation. I was floored.

She continued to work with me via a 'new' high school research program we created for 'alternative students. She assisted me throughout my dissertation and presented this poster at the 2006 International Animal Behavior Society Meeting....as a high school student. Take that!

This type of pre-judging of students happens all too often. Students from poor and poorly performing school districts, students who wear sagging pants or speak slang or with accents, students that may not make good grades, students from single-parent/multi-generation homes – these kids are denied an opportunity to participate at the gate. I cannot count the number of students I have encountered who have promise but absolutely no idea where to start or how to get started.

I have seen in at the high school and college level - professors that turn away students with GEDs or those who struggle academically, but who show up anyway. So many students who have been dismissed or passed over by teachers, guidance counselors, and professors because s/he may not be polished enough for top-level science. (Whatever that means.)

Hip Hop Education- I’m here for them!

I see the promise of possibility in them. I know what they are missing isn’t intelligence or capacity to learn or tenacity. They simply lack exposure and guidance and chance – a chance to show what they know and present it in a way that is relevant to them. That’s Hip Hop Education.

I see the kinesthetic genius in the B-boy. I get logic and analytical skill of the ghetto philosopher. I comprehend the mathematic genius of the D-boys. I see the art and science in the glyphs of graffiti. I see it.

I am unapologetically black and urban and female. Why does this matter to science? Because access to science (information and career opportunities) has real life consequences for people. But if the academia doesn’t have representation or at least people who understand these students, then how do they gain access to higher education or STEM? There are real disparities in this nation - in education, economically, health, income, quality of life, and more. Being black or brown, from the inner-city or deep rural areas, being a woman or disabled affects which side of the equation you land on.

I am also unapologetically SCIENCE! Together ALL of these words make up my identity. I am all of these things (and more) and I aim cultivate and train a battalion of hundreds of more just like me: clever kids from single-parent homes, from the hood. I plan to vehemently defend their right to be given a chance and shut down anyone who would dare say a disparaging word against any one of my students.

If I, as a PhD scientist with credentials, cannot call my fellow scientists to task on the role privilege and prejudices play in academia, then who can? Better yet, who else will?

Note: This post was inspired by a post by Miriam Goldstein at Deep Sea News: A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity (January 24, 2013). Please read it and comment. This conversation about the role of privilege and access to STEM by diverse students is an important one. Miriam and I both have been very active in science outreach to under-served (and urban) initiating these conversations in our respective scientific spheres.