Black STEM Woman: Represent!

I grew up in a household where getting dirty, playing baseball (not softball, BASEBALL) and watching things explode was acceptable. All the neighborhood moms would ask my mother why we even wanted to put our own bikes together or help our father change a tire. Mom would always say, “because my girls are curious.”

black woman with VR gogglesForty-five years ago, the chances of seeing a Black person or a woman of any color being more than a nurse was still pretty rare. I met my first Black doctor when I was 13. She inspired me. I’d heard there was this human phenomenon called a “Black Woman Doctor” and here she was, in the flesh! Although our family doctor was kind, attentive, and funny, she, somehow, was more than that. She had been to med school and she had an office and tools of the trade. I was duly impressed.

My senior year in high school, after deciding I wanted to perhaps be a pharmacist, nothing shocked me more than walking into a room in the counselor’s office with my friends and seeing a Black woman there to talk to us about Purdue’s program. She was a PharmD and head of the School of Pharmacy’s outreach program. Meeting her convinced me I could be one too. I changed my mind at the end of Freshman year, but her representation, and that of the doctor helped me see what I could be. I finished my first bachelor’s degree in Industrial Hygiene.

I worked in Hygiene for almost 15 years, finally changing careers when I got laid off for the 6th time (ugh). In those years, it was hard being the only woman in the office, let alone the only Black in the office, but I developed coping skills, my mantra was always, “I don’t drink coffee, therefore, I will not make coffee.” (it was that serious in a few places)  I set goals for myself, and I spoke up showing my expertise in certain areas. I showed them I wasn’t afraid of their intimidation or their harassment. I made sure I represented women and Blacks by always being professional, putting in twice the effort because it was assumed my work would be half as good. There are men out there now, if they want to admit it, that know women and Blacks (and by extension, all “marginalized people”) are capable and qualified, because I showed them we can be and are capable and qualified. People now tell me I have a lot of “male” traits. I laugh and tell them, that’s from hanging around “know it all” engineers for years.

black woman engineerI received my second bachelor’s in Elementary Education with an emphasis on Middle School science. I’ve been teaching now for 18 years. It was important to me to teach science at the middle school level because I learned that girls at this age who are interested in STEM tend to pull away from their interests because of social pressure.  It was important to me to, again,  represent. My first day of school speech always included, “I’m not here to turn you into scientists, I’m here to help you appreciate science.” Now that I teach Engineering and Technology, that mantra hasn’t changed, just the subject matter. I have former students tell me all the time, they learned to appreciate STEM even when their brothers and fathers were telling them not to appreciate it. Some of them are now in the medical field as nurses, radiologists, physicians, and more, engineers, mathematicians, and entrepreneurs (because, “Mrs. Stone, I can’t be working “for the man”. I’m too fabulous for that!”  You GO girl!)

With my Masters in Edtech, I also now work now to be the representative to teachers learning technology who assume there aren’t a lot of Blacks and other POC working in EdTech. It’s been appreciated, especially among those who want to work more on equity and making sure that the representation is appropriate.

black woman scientistI still keep in touch with women working in STEM.  A lot has changed; a lot has not changed. The assumptions about ability, the questioning of schooling and education, the need to handhold and “mansplain”; it’s all still there, BUT unlike when I first began in STEM, Blacks and other women of color aren’t out there alone anymore.  When women open textbooks or visit websites, there are women looking back at them. When IBPOC interact in STEM environments, there’s someone that looks like them there. I read articles by brilliant women doing amazing things. I’m so proud of them all.

The day I finished writing this article, two things happened. First, I received an email from a student in one of my classes. She’d been out all week, in bed with the flu. (forgot about the flu, ha) She didn’t need help with anything, she just wanted to let me know she was feeling better, would get caught up on her work and how much she loved my class and how I was the coolest teacher she’s ever had. She said, “I want to be just like you when I grow up, Mrs. Stone.”

black woman mathematicianThe second email was from a student struggling with a coding assignment in her OTHER computer science class. (Overachiever alert!) After discussing the issue, considering options to resolve it, shooing away her two younger sisters who were watching HER code (one is now coding because the last time we worked together, I told her to make her own account and get to work) we came up with a solution and she was so grateful. “I love you, Mrs. Stone! You’re the greatest!”

By the way, you know how I turned out, want to know about my sisters? One is a Registered Nurse instructor in Geriatric Nursing, the other (now our mother’s primary caregiver), used to be a Rocket Scientist with NASA.

Representation matters.

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