• Bridging the Gap

    Clemson students working to address diversity and inclusion in STEM

By Hannah Halusker
Photography by  Josh Wilson

In February of 2019, sixth-grade students at McCants Middle School in Anderson, South Carolina, fashioned toy cars out of leftover bottles and boxes, strapped a battery pack and a fan to the cars’ rears, and set them off down the hallway of McCants, the cars idling past speckled tiles and blue metal lockers.

It was an exercise designed to teach them about the science of electricity, specifically how electricity flows through a circuit and converts into other types of energy —  light, chemical, or heat, to name a few.

The activity was part of a daylong visit from the CU INVESTors, a group of Clemson University students who are “INVesting in Excellence in Science and Technology” by bringing lessons and experiments in STEM to students from economically disadvantaged, minority backgrounds.

  • A need to fill

The United States is now more racially and ethnically diverse than it has ever been, but that diversity is not yet reflected in the sciences. In 2017, traditionally underrepresented minorities — African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders — accounted for nearly a third of the U.S. population, yet only about 17 percent were employed as scientists and engineers in the country.

Several years ago, Meredith Morris, an associate professor of genetics and biochemistry who teaches molecular biochemistry at Clemson, began to notice that racial and ethnic gap reflected in her classes.

“As I’ve watched the classroom landscape change, I’ve found that it’s not mirroring the change that we see in the general population,” Morris said. “My classroom dynamic is shifting; we have a more diverse culture, but the students that are going into sciences are still very homogenous.”

One way to build diversity, Morris decided, is to impact students while they’re young, and she has science to back up her idea. Studies in psychology have shown that children’s self-concepts and aspirations are often cemented by their teenage years. Other studies suggest that proximity to science — that is, knowing a friend or family member who works in a STEM field — helps young children to familiarize themselves with science.

“The idea at that point was to bridge the gap between what kids were learning in the classroom and what scientists did in the lab,” Morris said. “We wanted to get into contact with students who didn’t necessarily have access to a lot of science resources.”

Thus, CU INVESTors was born in 2014 as part of Clemson University’s Creative Inquiry program, which creates team-based, hands-on research experiences for undergraduates. In its initial stages, the group was a three-student operation headed by Morris, and it worked exclusively with a high school biology teacher in Columbia, South Carolina. Once a month, the INVESTors would wake at 3 a.m. and make the groggy trek to the state’s capital, weaving through morning rush traffic on I-26 to get there. While the students slept in the backseat, Morris cruised to the sounds of NPR. In the trunk was more than $1,000 worth of equipment and supplies — borrowed from teaching labs at Clemson University — that was necessary to teach the high schoolers how to analyze DNA like a real-life laboratory geneticist. Morris had also developed lessons for the students about her area of research: neglected tropical diseases and the parasites that cause them.

“I had this really naïve feeling of: ‘We’re going to go there, I’m going to tell them about parasites and these horrible diseases, and they’re going to be so influenced, they’ll want to change the world,’” Morris said. “We were going to do molecular biology experiments and make genetic constructs at the high school, then bring them back to Clemson to study and … Well, that was just insanity, I don’t know what we were thinking.”

As it turns out (to no surprise in Morris’ hindsight), high schoolers aren’t fans of being lectured to, and genetics, a specialized discipline within biology, can be difficult to grasp without much prior exposure to the subject. Yet at the high school in Columbia, the INVESTors discovered an even greater teachable moment that set the course of the group for years to follow.

“The high school students were a lot of fun, but what we found was we lost a lot of diversity when we worked at the high school level because those students’ trajectories had already been set when they were younger,” said Morris. “They were already labeled as remedial, honors or advanced placement students; they had already decided whether or not they enjoyed science and whether or not they could be a scientist. At that age, our lessons were just falling flat.”

With its trio of founding students about to graduate, INVESTors appeared for a moment as if it might not survive another academic year. However, the group met August of 2016 with a transitive mindset, relocating its outreach to Clemson-area schools, expanding its lessons into other STEM disciplines, and shifting its target audience to middle schoolers, ranging in age from 11 to 13 years old.

Brett Sherley and Krista Knowles, members of the class of 2019, were there for the regrouping. Their dedication helped to turn CU INVESTors into something of an overnight success.

  • "You can do it too"

Still existing somewhere on the internet’s “cloud” is a long-forgotten spreadsheet with the names of each Clemson student enrolled in the 2016 INVESTors Creative Inquiry. Beside their names are lists of middle schools in the Upstate: three per student, with many of the schools receiving government funding because of their location in traditionally low-income communities. Each student was tasked with reaching out to every science teacher at the schools they were assigned in an attempt to forge new outreach partnerships in the Upstate region.

“We sent them cold emails, and I personally didn’t get a single response,” said Knowles, a biochemistry major. “I think we only got two responses in that entire time, which is crazy to think about because now we can’t accommodate all of the teachers who want us to come to their schools.”

After making connections with teachers at Lakeview Middle in West Greenville and McCants Middle in Anderson, the team set out, building a regular schedule of monthly meetings in which they take over a teacher’s classroom for a day and lead hands-on science activities: the art of blood-typing, a relay race to learn how genes are inherited, competitions to build the most weather-resistant “house.” The CU INVESTors aim to make science fun and relatable through arts, crafts and games that help students envision themselves as future scientists-in-training. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“A lot of the time, the teachers we work with have large classes, and they don’t necessarily have the time to plan or lead the activities that we do all by themselves,” said Sherley, a genetics and microbiology major. “We’ll come in with eight students split between classrooms and we can work one-on-one with all of the students, which gives the teacher time to catch up on grading, and they seem to really appreciate it all. Mrs. McMann, the teacher we work with at McCants, tells us every time how happy she is that we visit her classes. ‘My students love it and they’re always involved’ —  her emails are so positive and encouraging.”

And it’s not just the teachers who are impacted. Five years since its inception and more than 400 children later, the INVESTors are well accustomed to the thank you’s and the questions of “When are you coming back?” from eager middle schoolers, excited to learn time and again.

“We’ll have students leave our lessons, run down the hall and shout to their friends, ‘You’re going to love going to this class today, it’s so much fun!’” Knowles said.

“Or we’ll be in the hallway and another class will see what we’re doing with our class, and they’ll say, ‘Why aren’t we doing that? When will we do that? Are we doing that today?’ It’s fun to see that they’re excited and happy that we’re there with them,” said Taylor Creighton, a junior genetics student in the group.

Amid the children’s enthusiasm are also stories of growth, of kids who had never taken much interest in their education until a day spent with the INVESTors. Some students have thanked the group for making their usually melancholy days a bit brighter; others admit the INVESTors helped them to “like” science a bit more than they did prior to the lesson.

Elle Johnson, a junior genetics major, had one of those students in her first semester.

“When we were teaching about human body systems, I remember Mrs. McMann told me about one specific student. She had never heard this student speak out or be vocal about an answer to a problem before. Yet, we would ask her questions, and she answered us multiple times,” Johnson said. “I’d never met this student before, and I didn’t know that was a characteristic of hers, so it was cool to hear that and to know that we had had an impact on her.”

“They’re so easy to give up,” Creighton added. “They’ll say, ‘No, I’m just stupid. I don’t know what to do.’ A lot of times, the kids just need a support system, someone to tell them, ‘No, you’re not stupid, this is just hard, and I can help you.’ And then you watch them overcome that challenge, and they become interested and involved in what we’re doing.”

To extend their impact, at the end of each lesson the INVESTors show a presentation to the middle schoolers that details potential jobs they could seek based on the day’s lesson. For instance, after the McCants students rolled cars down the hallway in the name of electricity, they returned to their classroom to learn how to become a mechanic, an engineer or an MRI technician. Importantly, the INVESTors share careers that are attainable with varying levels of education — from high school, to technical college, to four-year universities and professional schools. It’s a facet of their lesson that aims to remove the intimidation from higher education, showing that everyone has a role to play in advancing science and technology.

“In my little group, I always ask them what they want to be when they grow up,” Johnson said. “Some of them say, ‘I’m not smart enough to be an engineer or a scientist.’ And I always tell them they are, they can do it.”

  • THE GRATIFYING PART

These days, Morris no longer has to make early-morning drives to schools for the INVESTors, but she still likes to drop in on a lesson here and there. The Creative Inquiry has officially taken off without her, and Morris says she’s happy that the students are able to lead the entire operation on their own. As a duo, Sherley and Knowles have directed a team of 17 Clemson students who are dedicated to the INVESTors mission — nearly six times the number of members the group initially had in 2014.

Johnson and Creighton are set to take over leadership in the upcoming academic year, and they have significant plans for where the INVESTors are headed. The group has already begun the process of securing University approval to survey middle school students and teachers in order to measure the INVESTors’ effectiveness, and to track the students’ career paths in the long term. They’re also working to incorporate Spanish into their lessons to accommodate Spanish-speaking students, especially at Lakeview Middle School, which has a large proportion of students from Hispanic backgrounds. And of course, the group hopes to expand its reach to more students and more classrooms.

For 2019 graduates Knowles and Sherley, CU INVESTors has been both a rewarding and transformative extracurricular experience. Sherley will begin a master’s degree in nursing at Vanderbilt University in the fall of 2019 with long-term plans to become a family nurse practitioner in an underserved area. If it weren’t for CU INVESTors, Sherley says she wouldn’t have recognized the need for quality healthcare in low-income areas.

“I don’t think I knew enough about the problem to know there was even a need for this type of work,” Sherley said. “Once I got involved in INVESTors and began researching the issues involved, I got really interested in how I can pair it with what I want to do as a career. You see the disparities that exist, and it’s so frustrating because these are things that could be fixed if enough people cared about them. Opening my eyes to that situation has been the most impactful.”

Knowles, on the other hand, hopes to get involved in science education in order to make science accessible to kids from all walks of life.

“Lowering it from its pedestal, anybody can do science,” Knowles said. “[Some students] might have been told that science is only for the really smart kids, but they can be really smart in this area if it’s something they’re interested in. Working toward that understanding is really important to me.”

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