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Diversity and STEM education in eastern North Carolina

When you were a student, did you see a teacher that looked like you standing in front of your class? Chances are if you are a person of color the answer is no. In North Carolina, over 80 percent of the teachers are white, while under 50 percent of the student population is white, according to data from the Department of Public Instruction.  

Why is this important? Because the minority population of children who make up the majority our school system will not see a teacher of color in the front of their classroom. In 2017, the Institute of Labor Economics published research that showed when black students were taught by a black teacher in any grade between third through fifth, they were 30 percent more likely to graduate.

STEM East was recently invited to assemble a team from eastern North Carolina (ENC) to participate in the Teacher Leadership Summit: Attracting, Retaining, and Developing a Diverse STEM Teaching Workforce sponsored by Howard University, the Smithsonian Science Education Center, and Shell Corporation. Bruce Middleton, the Director of STEM East, and a team of Human Resource, Career and Technical Education, and STEM personnel from Pitt, Greene, and Jones Counties represented the 11 school districts that make up STEM East.

Working with our assigned coach, Lyric Flood from Houston, Texas, the team was tasked with creating a logic model to capture our goal of developing a STEM Professional Initiative Council to attract and retain diverse and qualified STEM teaching professionals from regional universities — especially those universities graduating minorities that mirror our regional population. Our second goal was to increase minority student participation in STEM curriculum pathways by 10 percent (2018-2021). The vision that we are seeking is to have students in our classrooms engage with successful STEM teaching professionals that provide an opportunity to inspire their own success.

One of our greatest challenges in recruitment and retention of teachers is our location and the variance of local amenities across the 11 school districts. We all felt that there is a great need to recruit and retain teachers, but found that what we are able to offer limited incentives. Additionally, while we are all trying to cooperate and work together we also recognize there is a certain level of competition among the 11 districts, and we are learning to live in that paradox.

The national summit included teams from the the Carolinas, California, and Washington state. There were over 20 groups represented with close to 200 participants who all had a similar mindset. One of the greatest rewards of attending was that the majority of the participants were people of color. Having been a STEM major in college and a science teacher who is an African-American female usually means that I am part of the minority at workshops, conferences, and other professional development settings. However, this was different.

A recurring theme throughout the summit was the belief that all students benefit from a diverse teaching workforce — even though, in many of our schools, this is not often the case. If we are to adequately and effectively address race and socio-economic achievement gaps within subgroups, should we not have teachers with experience from those groups? Authors Kathleen M. Budge and William H. Parrett write in their book Disrupting Poverty: Five Powerful Classroom Practices, “In large part, our effort to ‘raise the bar and close the gap’ continues to focus almost exclusively on the what and how questions: What shall we teach and how shall we teach it?”

However, in their research into high -poverty, high performing schools, the authors found that it is the why and who — “why do we teach” and “who is the self that teaches” — questions that are most critical in getting an increase in student achievement. Understanding the why and who on the behalf of the teacher is also supported by arguments made by Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach.

One of my most enriching experiences while attending this two day event occurred during what was called The Dyad Conversation. One person spoke at a time while another person engaged in listening skills. In this exercise, there was a face-to-face, verbal communication between two people involving their mutual ideas, thoughts, deals, likes/dislikes, and the queries and answers concerning racial diversity in STEM education. They both got to answer the following questions in about four minutes:

  1. What experience do diverse students bring? How can diverse teachers enhance these assets?
  2. From your perspective, what barriers prevent diverse students from becoming STEM educators or entering STEM careers?
  3. What are the challenges to recruitment and retention of diverse STEM teachers?
  4. What are some of the implicit biases teachers or school leaders may have when working with students who have lived different experiences?
  5. How can non-diverse STEM educators be engaged in understanding the cultural differences of students?

After responding in pairs we met as a whole team to share and find common themes and patterns. The discoveries and truths were that we as educators are the gatekeepers for many children who may not have opportunities in STEM. We also shared that sometimes having an unspoken bias can cause students to not explore differences that may help them understand STEM careers. Having the debrief helped to shape our perspective on how students must feel and as educators /leaders, we should explore the idea of who the “self is that teaches”.

As impactful as this experience was, I also recognize that in order to recruit and retain diverse STEM educators we must move beyond simply attending career fairs and expos to gather resumes from perspective STEM education majors.

We must consider who we are as a region and then offer that to persons of color along with the opportunity to join others with similar beliefs and desires. To be a destination for educators of color, we must engage in practices that will welcome their experience and accept their diversity with the understanding they may reach students of similar backgrounds. We must also adopt the philosophy of “grow your own” by identifying students with the potential for returning to our classroom as exemplary teachers. We need to implement strategies to nurture their growth and support their return.

I look forward to working within my district and serving with other local educators to bring racial diversity into our area so all students can have someone that looks like them. As a result of the summit, we now have a number of  ideas to implement as we work toward increasing the number of people of color in our STEM classrooms. As a team, moving forward, will require support from local businesses and industry as well as Human Resource departments in each district. Reaching our goals also means working within schools to train teachers and offer professional development to create STEM opportunities for all students.

To learn more information about STEM opportunities in Eastern NC, please contact Bruce Middleton (, STEM East Network or Lori Collins (, Division of Educator Effectiveness and Leadership, Pitt County Schools.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was corrected to now read “…accept their diversity with the understanding.”

Lori Collins

Lori Collins is a graduate of North Carolina State University. She obtained a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Biochemistry and a Bachelor’s of Art Degree in Chemistry. After spending seven years in the pharmaceutical industry, Lori followed her true passion – education – and obtained her teaching certificate through NC Teach. Her education career began as a Science teacher in Johnston County. While there, Lori served as a mentor, lead science teacher, and grade level chairperson. In 2009, she graduated with her Master’s in School Administration and Curriculum and Instruction. While continuing to work in Johnston County, Lori wrote curriculum for the county and became Site Coordinator for Leadership and Assistance for the Science Education Reform (LASER) grant which was funded by the Smithsonian Institute to improve STEM learning in K-12 classrooms. Lori receive additional training at WestEd in California, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development, and service agency.

In 2013 Lori joined the staff at AG Cox Middle School where she later became an assistant principal. Currently she serves as Teacher Support Coordinator for Pitt County Schools through the Department of Educator Effectiveness and Leadership.