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Shining a light on Black excellence in STEM today

Jessie Woolley-Wilson
February 24, 2021

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As Black History Month 2021 comes to a close, I’m reflecting on how this year’s celebration differed from years past, particularly in light of the racial justice movement that took root in 2020. I saw more participation and celebration of the contributions of Black Americans across the spectrum of social and traditional media, sports, business, and government. I noted more conversations about race and diversity, including racial disparities in healthcare and the workforce.  As usual, many students learned about historical Black leaders this month. 

But why does it have to end on February 28?

There has never been a more critical time to be intentional about showcasing Black excellence, inside and outside the classroom.  Only seven percent of educators are Black, and even less, two percent, are Black men. We know that students benefit from having role models that look like them. Studies show that Black students exposed to one Black teacher by third grade are 13% more likely to enroll in college, and students of color in general show improved reading and math test scores, as well as increased graduation rates, when they have teachers of color.

This has a real impact on their lives and careers. Today, Black workers make up just 11% of the total U.S. workforce and only 9% of the STEM workforce. And the need is even more pronounced now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately impact communities and students of color. A recent study by McKinsey & Company projects that minority students may have lost three to five months of math learning compared to one to three months for white students.

That is why we must continue to tout transformative Black leaders, and not just historical figures. Educators have an opportunity to inspire students by telling the stories of Black leaders making history today, including how they have overcome their own challenges and transformed their industries along the way. 

Here are just a few Black leaders in STEM that more students should be learning about today.

Jewel Burks Solomon, founder and entrepreneur

Jewel founded Partpic, a company that used computer vision technology to streamline the purchase of maintenance and repair parts. She later sold the company to Amazon. Today, as the head of Google for Startups, Jewel helps connect underrepresented startup founders and communities with the right Google tools and resources to accelerate their businesses. She is also the Managing Partner at Collab Capital, which is an alternative investment fund designed to close the funding gap for Black entrepreneurs. She has been named as a Forbes “30 Under 30” honoree, one of Atlanta’s “100 Most Influential People in 2020,” and on Ebony Magazine’s “Power 100” list.

Dr. Alexa Canady, neurosurgeon 

In 1981, Dr. Alexa Canady became the first African American female neurosurgeon in the U.S. She focused her practice on pediatric neurosurgery and was the chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987 to 2001. Under her leadership, the department was considered one of the best in the country. She retired from medicine in 2012 and continues to advocate for young women pursuing careers in medicine.

Dr. Timnit Gebru, research scientist

Dr. Timnit Gebru is a researcher who specializes in ethical Artificial Intelligence with a focus on algorithmic bias and data mining. She received her PhD from the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and has worked for Google and Apple. Her work includes helping to design the circuits and signal processing algorithms for Apple products such as the first iPad. Today, she is a board member for Black in AI, a nonprofit that seeks to increase the presence of Black people in AI through mentorship and advocacy. 

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, environmentalist  

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, and environmentalist who builds solutions for ocean conservation and climate change. She is the founder of Urban Ocean Lab, which is a platform that allows coastal cities to improve their environmental policies and develop climate change interventions. She also co-created the Blue New Deal, which is a plan for including the ocean in climate policy. She has held policy positions at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Through her advocacy and volunteering, Dr. Johnson works to mentor the next generation of conservation leaders. 

Lonnie Johnson, aerospace engineer and inventor

Lonnie is the president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc. Before founding his company, Lonnie served as the Acting Chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section for the U.S. Air Force. Through his work, Lonnie received both the Air Force Achievement and the Air Force Commendation medal. He also served as the Senior Systems Engineer at NASA, where he helped with the mission to Jupiter and the Mars Observer project. Lonnie is also known for inventing the Super Soaker® water gun, and he holds more than 100 patents. 

By educating students about the accomplishments of these impressive leaders and many others, we can help cultivate a more diverse future generation of mathematicians, environmentalists, inventors, scientists, and more. 

Jessie Woolley-Wilson is President and CEO of DreamBox Learning®. Prior to joining DreamBox, she held executive positions at leading EdTech companies, including Blackboard, LeapFrog, and Kaplan. She has been a featured speaker at TEDx Rainier, SXSWedu, and the ASU GSV Summit, and Ernst & Young named her “Entrepreneur Of The Year®” in the Pacific Northwest region. She has supported the broader education community by serving on several boards, including Rosetta Stone and the Western Governors University Board of Trustees. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from the University of Virginia.

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