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For the month of February, the Nautilus Marketing Team will feature interviews with organizations and institutions working to increase opportunities for young Black people to imagine and succeed in STEM career paths—and we’ll donate 10 percent of all new member subscriptions toward their initiatives.

Black representation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields totaled only 9 percent in 2021, as reported by The National Science Foundation.

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From the moment chemist Cynthia Chapple began her graduate studies to the day she began her professional STEM career, she noticed a sobering detail: She was often the only Black woman, or the only person of color, in the room. 

Her experience is statistically validated. This year, The National Science Foundation reported that of the entire STEM workforce, only 9 percent are Black; in 2015, Black women represented a slim 1.6 percent.

In Body Image
Cynthia Chapple is a chemist and the CEO Black Girls Do STEM. Photo courtesy of Black Girls Do Stem.

Chapple set out to address the problem at the source. She founded an organization to help young Black girls find pathways toward careers in STEM, focused on one centripetal force: the cultivation of self-belief. We spoke with her about her work as the CEO of Black Girls Do STEM, breaking down internalized barriers, and what it means for underrepresented people to bear and share knowledge.  

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As a young person, what inspired your pursuit of a career as a chemist, and eventually as a CEO and educational advocate?

Throughout my entire educational experience from kindergarten to graduate studies, I was often the single person of color—or woman—in a space. Thinking about what that sometimes felt like as a STEM undergrad or graduate student, or as a graduate presenter at conferences across the United States—this is how I came to be an advocate for thinking critically about the experience of people of color. And advocating for Black girls and women in a way that’s palatable to other people can be challenging. So I feel the need to continue to use my voice to leverage more support and access for Black girls and women in STEM.

Your organization, Black Girls Do STEM, works directly with local school districts and grant funders to help introduce STEM to children at an early age. What are the long-term goals of your programming?

Our mission is to trigger curiosity. At Black Girls Do STEM, we effectively utilize culture, identity, and truth to cultivate joy in STEM. Our mission is not just about getting Black girls to do STEM, but it’s also about how they see themselves in the learning process and environment, and how they can experience joy. We want Black girls to be able to show up as their true selves without having to assimilate to a space that does not feel authentic. Black girls are not often recognized as knowledge bearers or sharers in science within their own educational experiences. Our name is straightforward, but our work is more about removing internalized barriers that Black girls carry as a result of what society has told them.

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Our goal is to get children excited about STEM by showing them how it can be fun, interesting, and relevant to their lives. We hope to build a generation of young people who are enthusiastic and capable of solving the problems of the future.

How do you work towards these goals?

The first piece is about exposing girls to STEM education and career opportunities. We work with a strategic partner to selectively recruit kids from high poverty, low-STEM access areas. We look at school districts that have a primarily majority African-American student population, and offer a robust program to broaden access and early exposure to a variety of multi-disciplinary career pathways. 

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STEM is all around us, and it’s important to engage and believe in Black girls’ abilities to comprehend and relate to it.

We help middle-school aged girls to think and feel differently about their skills and competencies—to help them develop a sense of confidence and self-worth. A big part of our work is to help them feel equipped with 21st-century competencies, like collaboration and critical thinking. These skills help girls view themselves as STEM-capable.

It’s well documented that one of the most important factors that affects a young person’s career decision is whether or not they feel that they belong. And that sense of belonging primarily comes from the perception of role models and potential mentors succeeding in this field. 

With our mentorship program, we’re able to help girls develop personally and socially by highlighting Black women working in different STEM fields. We want girls to form meaningful, trusting relationships with adults who help them see themselves as potential STEM professionals. It’s important to consider how children learn, and how they name the things that they learn. One way we help them understand the STEM field is by showing them where they might work in that industry, and what types of companies fall within that respective industry. By being in a space with role models, they’re more likely to receive that information from someone they trust and identify with, and imagine themselves working in those STEM careers. 

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What are some of the challenges and misconceptions that young Black girls and women may face when pursuing a career in STEM?

I think the misconception is that there is a specific way to qualify who can learn STEM, and because of the cultural realities of Black people and our lack of overall representation, there isn’t broad access or exposure. This perpetuates the idea that STEM is not for Black girls. It’s up to those in power to change their approach and recognize that all children have knowledge and perspectives worth engaging with. We need to give Black girls and women the opportunity to be knowledge bearers and knowledge sharers in STEM.

At Black Girls Do STEM, we aim to be the guardrails for how learning happens in the space, while also empowering girls to set the tone for their own learning. We foster student-led discussions, because we believe that children have knowledge, and they can share knowledge. For instance, they can have conversations about environmental science, such as air pollution and how to test for different air pollutants. STEM is all around us, and it’s important to engage and believe in Black girls’ abilities to comprehend and relate to it. 

It seems like one aspect is to restructure and reframe the value system of knowledge, and to recognize the kinds of knowledge that are deemed important.

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I think telling all of the stories and presenting the collective knowledge of what a STEM career is about is important. We need to go beyond presenting only the Einstein figures or the idea that you have to be inherently brilliant. We need to paint a more inclusive picture of the process of creativity and innovation. 

Also, we need to demystify and acknowledge the history: There have always been people in STEM, innovating with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Black women have always been present throughout every decade and every generation. But this piece of history is often hidden, as we can see in the stories of figures like Katherine Johnson. But there is a vast history that is not well known, and Black children can learn much more about the contributions made by people who look like them.

We need to give Black girls and women the opportunity to be knowledge bearers and knowledge sharers in STEM.

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Katherine Johnson is wonderful, but when we show kids the image of her at the whiteboard with all those mathematical equations, we’re still presenting an image that suggests you have to be a brilliant mathematician to enter a STEM field. We celebrate those people, but you can also be someone who’s not that kind of mathematician. There are many other areas. You can do applied mathematics—like as an animator at Disney—where you don’t have to regurgitate formulas all the time. You can be a designer and focus on art, and lean on other people in your innovation team to be the mathematicians or physicists. We also need chemists to select the stretchable materials that we might need, and front-end designers to make it look aesthetically pleasing. When it comes to technology, we have UX designers and back-end developers who serve different purposes. That’s the collective of STEM that’s often missed. STEM and other fields are so integrated that they’ll all meet in these future careers.

Interview by C.L. Croft.

Lead image courtesy of Black Girls Do STEM.

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