STEM & Math Equity Conferences Recapped: Rehumanizing the Classroom and Empowering All Students

The STEM and Math Equity Conferences, a series of back-to-back virtual professional development events on empowering all students as thinkers and doers of STEM, were held online on October 9-10, 2020.

The event was sponsored by the Delaware STEM Council, the Delaware Foundation for Science and Mathematics Education (DFSME), the Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering (FAME), the Delaware Math Coalition (DMC), and Delaware Technical Community College. Additional sponsors included DuPont, Verizon, LabWare, and Spekciton Biosciences LLC.

The conferences follow the lead of last year’s Fifth Annual Delaware STEM Symposium, which took on a theme of equity and helped to kick off the ongoing initiative to address inequities in Delaware STEM and STEM education.

Additionally, the STEM and Math Equity Conferences represent the culmination of sustained efforts to prioritize a forum for these necessary and meaningful conversations on equity in STEM. This is particularly true in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which postponed original plans to hold these virtual conferences as an in-person gathering this past April. Subsequently, conference organizers and sponsors have demonstrated a resilience and commitment to equity in their unwavering pursuit of this mission.

Jamila Riser is one such agent of change which the equity conferences would not have been possible without. As a veteran Delaware educator and the Executive Director of DMC, Riser has led a state-wide alliance of educational partners and organizations in the pursuit of professional learning experiences that advance teaching and learning practices in mathematics.

At the STEM Equity Conference, Riser was awarded the inaugural Armbrecht Award for Outstanding STEM Advocacy, for her dedication to high quality STEM education for all Delaware students. The award is given in memory of former DFSME Executive Director, Ross Armbrecht.

“It’s been incredibly gratifying to work with the leaders who have come together to support not only today’s work, but who have clearly demonstrated that this is their calling,” Riser said. “During my 34 years as an educator I have never been more convinced that true progress is possible.”

Prominent Delaware state representatives also attended the STEM Equity Conference, including State Secretary of Education Susan Bunting and Lieutenant Governor Bethany Hall-Long.

“Equity is an integral component of achieving the STEM mission; more than an initiative and beyond a moral imperative,” Bunting said. “Equity is our internal, external, and our actionable commitment.”

The conference also featured a dialogue, entitled “Accepting Truth: Listen, Reflect, and Connect,” between keynote speakers  Jinni Forcucci of the Delaware Department of Education and Dontez Collins of Cape Henlopen High School. The two award-winning educators’ relationship goes back to Sussex Tech, where they once shared a classroom together as teacher and student.

Forcucci articulated the importance of celebrating identity and differing perspectives. She also advocated for the power of emotional vulnerability as a prerequisite to having the open conversations which are necessary to advance a more equitable educational environment. Collins also shared an honest account of his experiences as a Black educator in STEM, and his journey to overcome discriminatory encounters where his truth was either interrogated or suppressed.

This thoughtful dialogue was followed by a student panel that brought to the forefront student experiences, and championed the importance for educators to elevate and listen to student voices. The panel was moderated by Monique Martin, who guided discussion as students shared stories on racial trauma and discrimination within school environments.

The Math Equity Conference which took place the following day also featured an opening keynote from Dr. Amanda Jansen, a professor of mathematics in the School of Education at the University of Delaware. As the author of Rough Draft Math, Jensen’s keynote reflected on ways to rehumanize the classroom, specifically highlighting the potential to advance equity and student engagement through the adoption of rough draft thinking within mathematics pedagogy.

Both conferences also afforded attendees with ample opportunities to actively participate in equity exercises through various strands and breakout sessions offered across both days. Topics included addressing systemic equity challenges; promoting equitable teaching in STEM classrooms; and supporting access to deeper learning for all by empowering leaders.

The breakout sessions featured over 25 educators who provided insight, facilitated discussions, and engaged with participants on equity topics. Attendees closely examined such concepts as implicit and explicit biases, representation and diversity in STEM, and active antiracism practices.

The Math Equity Conference concluded with a plenary session from Dr. Imani Goffney, an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Maryland, College Park. Goffney encouraged attendees to use Wakanda, the fictional African nation from Marvel Comics’ Black Panther film, as a metaphorical aid with which to begin imagining the rich potential for equitable and empowering classroom spaces for Black and Brown students.

The STEM Equity Conference concluded with a final discussion which centered around moving forward with the “new normal” in Delaware STEM education, as Delaware STEM Council Co-Chair Teri Quinn Gray described. Gray outlined what she identified as a “triple threat” of national reckonings, with COVID-19, economic instability, and, underscoring it all, racism and social justice issues which presently come to the forefront of the new normal.

Lt. Governor Bethany Hall-Long also joined the conference for the day’s conclusion to offer final reflections alongside Gray, Riser, FAME Program Director Lakia Belcher, and Randy Guschl, Executive Director of DFSME.

“We are on the right train, we just have to keep the locomotion going,” Hall-Long said of Delaware’s STEM and STEM Equity initiatives. “We are full-speed ahead. STEM learning and STEM equity fuse a real pathway to opportunity and prosperity.”

This final discussion also reflected upon the special opportunity that has emerged to define exactly what the new normal is, specifically in regard to approaches to STEM pedagogy and the challenges of virtual learning. Speakers engaged with critical questions: How can we challenge longstanding narratives in STEM and mathematics that are barriers to equity, and how can we engage in meaningful work and lifelong endeavors that disrupt current inequities at a systemic level?

“It’s important that we start to look at STEM and STEAM as not just a school thing – this is a life thing,” Belcher said. “This is something that all students can engage in, from K to gray, because education never stops… It’s going to take all of us from all walks of life to do the work.”

During the course of both conferences, attendance totaled over 300 persons across both days, with many participants demonstrating enthusiastic and supportive engagement and returning overwhelmingly positive feedback after the conferences.

“This was an incredible day,” one attendee wrote in the feedback submission. “I am filled with emotion as the day comes to a close: An emotional high because the content, speakers, and community inspire me. Emotional because this is such a complex and important focus for our community. Every day and every experience can help us forge new ground. We can and will and are making a difference!”

All are encouraged to continue the conversations surrounding equity and Delaware STEM by attending the Sixth Annual Delaware STEM Educator Awards, which will be held early in 2021. More information will be forthcoming.

Jan Castro is a senior at the University of Delaware, studying English, geography, and journalism. He is a Delaware native from Hockessin and has been a proud student of Delaware educators. After college, he hopes to pursue a career in PR writing and magazine writing.

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