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When it comes to equity and education, educators are the change agents

“I know the child who feels broken, and STEM is a way to reach those children,” said Mariah Morris, the 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year and a teacher at West Pine Elementary School in Moore County Schools. “STEM engages their minds.”

Science. Technology. Engineering. Math.

Every other year, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund brings together teachers they invest in from across North Carolina “to provide opportunities for educational exchanges and capacity building.”

A celebration of all things science education, STEM teachers love the opportunity to be together sharing best practices, networking, and playing. 

Introduced as a champion for STEM and equity by Alfred Mays, a program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Morris shared her quest to bring STEM equity to her second grade classroom and her own experience of daring to dream, learning to fail, and leading to inspire.

“Girls have to see it to be it,” said Morris. She talked about #IAMCS, a new initiative by the N.C. Department of Instruction and the K-12 Computer Sciences and Technology Education Department to expose girls to computer science courses and women in computer science careers. “We believe in the power of equity in STEM.”

The STEM pipeline

Through the stories of students at different stages of the STEM pipeline, the conference offered an in-depth look at teaching and learning, enrichment, and career paths in STEM. Meet Ana, Marco, Itaevia, and Dr. AJ.

This video is about these scholars and their experience of the STEM pipeline.

Dr. AJ said he values the opportunity to “champion the cause for promoting STEM with minorities,” and he noted how important it is for teachers to “open people’s minds and unlock their potential.”

Itaevia stressed the importance of representation in science, which she defined as people of similar backgrounds as you. She says, “It’s crucial to your growth.”

She said of her teachers and mentors of color, “Not only have they shown me I can go the distance, they pushed me to do it.”

Marco fell in love with education and fell in love with the STEM ecosystem, but noted the resource challenges facing rural versus urban areas. “In a rural area,” he said, “every tiny thing makes a difference.”

In a discussion about imposter syndrome, Ana said of her work in postsecondary science labs, “I feel like I have no place there.” And then she said, “The crux of the matter is to be confident in yourself.”

The scholars’ one word for success in STEM? Communication. Confidence. Grit. Determination.

“The teachers are our assets”

The conference celebrates the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Science/STEM education award recipients, including Career Awards for Science and Mathematics Teachers, FastTrack Scholars/Teachers, Singapore Math Pilot Teachers/Principals, Student STEM Enrichment Program Directors, and other select awardees.

According to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund website, “The Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers provides $175,000 over five-years to outstanding science and/or mathematics teachers in the North Carolina public primary and secondary schools.” This year, the five 2019 CASMT teachers were honored at the conference: Casandra Cherry, Reneta Crawley, Justin Jones, Beverly Owens, and Sallie Senseney. 

Casandra Cherry, a multi-classroom teacher in math and science at Phillips Middle School in Edgecombe County Public Schools, passed away on August 21, 2019. Superintendent Valerie Bridges and Principal Jenny O’Meara attended the conference to honor the teacher they affectionately call “Cherry.”

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has awarded a strategic grant to Edgecombe County Public Schools for Phillips Middle School so that the work of Cherry can go on through maker space labs and STEAM for the students she called “her children.”

O’Meara says, “She just always put kids first. If there is anything that woman loved, it’s STEM and resilience and creativity and doing the right thing no matter what.” The maker space will open on February 21, 2020 — Cherry’s birthday.

Cultivating relationships

Almost 50 organizations “across program grant areas and geographic regions” came together for the conference to share their work through posters and displays. During the late night, this networking space transforms into a place where educators can play together.

LaTanya Pattillo, teacher advisor to Gov. Roy Cooper, enjoyed the opportunity to “talk shop” with the teachers.

“Educators need resources and quality professional development in order to be effective,” she said. “Through their awards, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund supports not only the growth of the educator, but the growth of the schools and district in which they serve.”

Paying it forward

It’s an inspirational group with calls for educators to “dream big” and “open up the world.”

“I would suggest educators continue to pay it forward,” said Dr. AJ. “It’s important to me that people who don’t have an opportunity get an opportunity. Reach out your hand and pull someone up with you. Not once, but over and over and over again.”

When Marco graduated from high school in Greene County, the principal and superintendent offered him a job right then. Upon graduating from college, Marco will teach in the schools he grew up in, “paying it forward to the county that gave me everything.”

For more information about the conference, check out #BWFSTEM2019 on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: The Burroughs Wellcome Fund supports the work of EducationNC.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.