Third Annual Delaware STEM & Math Equity Conferences “Powerful Moments: Equity In and Out of the Classroom”

The STEM and Math Equity Conferences, a two-day series of virtual professional development sessions was held October 8-9, following the immense success of last year’s conferences.

This year continued to build upon the body of work to address STEM equity in the state and beyond, an initiative which the Delaware STEM Council launched in 2019. The Council has since sought to preserve a forum where these complex yet necessary conversations can be shared, particularly in the virtual era of COVID-19.

The event was made possible thanks to major sponsors Labware, Heinemann, and Verizon, as well as the American Chemical Society (ACS) Delaware Local Section,, the Delaware Afterschool Network (DEAN), DuPont, Delmarva Power, and Bloom Energy.

In addition to the Delaware STEM Council, the conferences represent a collaborative effort between the Delaware Foundation for Science and Mathematics Education (DFSME), the Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering (FAME), the Delaware Math Coalition (DMC).

The conferences began with Day 1’s Math Equity Conference, which was kicked off with opening remarks from Governor John Carney and State Secretary of Education Susan Bunting, both of whom have consistently been ardent advocates of Delaware STEM and the STEM Equity mission.

This introduction was followed by Dr. Nicol Lee Turner, a Senior Fellow and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute’s Center for Technology, whose keynote address touched upon the critical inequities which exist outside of the classroom. Specifically, as the shift to virtual learning has exposed the striking disparities in students’ access to basic technological tools and infrastructure, Turner demonstrated the many ways in which the pursuit of equity in STEM education must transcend the four walls of a classroom.

“We have to ensure that our mantra for the 21st century is ‘no child left offline,’” Turner said. “How we handle the digital divide and the digitally invisible is how we are going to handle education moving forward.”

Furthermore, unique to the Math Equity Conference agenda was the opportunity for attendees to directly participate in equity exercises and impactful conversation through a diverse program of breakout sessions.

The breakout sessions featured over 28 mathematics educators and leaders who provided insight, facilitated discussions, and, alongside participants, closely examined themes of “Addressing Systemic Equity Challenges;” “Promoting Equitable Teaching in the Mathematics Classroom;” and “Empowering Leaders: Supporting Access to Deeper Learning for All.”

The Math Equity Conference was highlighted with another keynote address from Dr. Michael Flynn, the Director of Math Programs at Mt. Holyoke College. In his session “Powerful Moments in Math Class”, Flynn explored strategies to create memorable learning experiences and identity-defining moments through the lens of mathematics education.

“We want our lessons and learning experiences to leave long-lasting impressions on those with whom we work. We want to empower those with whom we work with a belief that they too are math capable. When we understand the psychology behind memories, learning, and identity, we can leverage that knowledge to design powerful moments for adults and students alike.” – Dr. Michael Flynn, Director of Math Programs at Mt. Holyoke College

The STEM Equity Conference took place on Day 2 and offered a series of four discussions featuring experts, practitioners, and advocates from across the state, one of them being Lt. Governor Bethany Hall-Long, a life-long and fervent champion of STEM, who returned to continue support for the Equity Conferences.

 “There is nothing more important that we can do than to educate
our young minds about the potential of STEM.
With the STEM work that we are doing in Delaware,
I am touched by how much we are making a difference.”

– Bethany Hall-Long, Lieutenant Governor, Delaware

Following this introduction was a special encounter between two prominent science communicators, public figures, and trailblazers, Jackie Means, the founder of the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative and a sophomore medical diagnostics major at the University of Delaware, and Dr. Bassam Shakhashiri, a professor, chemist, former ACS president, and host of his own seasonal PBS special, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Surrounded by flasks and test tubes filled with colorful liquids and bubbling dry ice, Shakhashiri, sporting a “Science is Fun” t-shirt, had prepared a series of scientific demonstrations to illustrate and discuss with Means the inherent fun in science and STEM education.

“The language in which we speak about what we’re doing and what we’re teaching is really important, especially with kids,” Means said. “It is important how we talk about STEM because that’s how [kids] will develop and interpret things for the rest of their lives. They’ll internalize that and keep that positive connotation, hopefully, as they think about STEM as they grow older.”

The conversion between Shakhashiri and Means further meditated on the power of engaging students and individuals by connecting their natural curiosities and scientific inquiries with the larger picture of society and daily life, consequently imbuing such connections with lasting meaning and inspiration, an impact that can be had both in the classroom and beyond.

 “We have an awesome responsibility to teach our students very important skills. But far more important than anything else is our responsibility to convey an attitude about the nature of science, and the beauty of engaging in scientific explorations.”
– Dr. Bassam Shakhashiri, Science Is Fun

As featured Speaker of the day, Dr. Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics and noted author, shared her presentation “The Role of Data Science in School Mathematics.” Boaler’s bold research involves the importance and emergence of data science being incorporated across classes including math, science, statistics, and computers for K-12 education. Currently working at local and national levels, she emphasized how the data revolution has transformed modern life and it’s time we bring data literacy to our education system.

 “If our schools are to succeed in preparing data-literate citizens, then they will have to begin by rethinking the K-12 mathematics curriculum. It won’t be sufficient just to add a new unit or two to the existing course of study. If we’re serious about giving meaningful attention to data science, that should prompt us to ask a fundamental question: In the 21st century, what kinds of mathematics do our students actually need to learn?” – Dr. Jo Boaler, Stanford University

Boaler concluded with the concept that expanding the mathematics pathway to include data science will expand access to mathematics that prepare students to answer important and relevant questions.

Discussion topic “Tools for Fostering an Inclusive and Diverse Classroom Community” was facilitated by Lakia Belcher, Director of Education and Strategic Outreach at FAME, Inc. Belcher presented practical nuggets that can help educators tap into diverse student backgrounds while building equity in the classroom.

Belcher talked candidly about how to recognize and overcome one’s microaggressions. Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages. Belcher shared examples of how to acknowledge and avoid microaggressions in an effort to strengthen a more equitable classroom and beyond.

The conference weekend concluded with panelists exploring the “M in STEM” – rethinking and reframing mathematics skills for the future Delaware STEM workforce. Panelists included Hiral Antala, IT Project Manager from Christiana Care, Ryan Harrington, Associate Director, Delaware Data Innovation Lab, and Dr. Jamila Riser, Executive Director of the Delaware Math Coalition. The roundtable discussion was lead by Luke Rhine, Director of Career & Technical Education and STEM Initiatives at the Delaware Department of Education.

“I love the idea of creating meaning and using mathematics to solve, not problems – not solving for x – but things that will directly impact the decisions that people will make tomorrow, the decisions that policymakers will make in our next legislative session,” said Rhine. “And these decisions have very real implications for the communities in which we live.”

Attendance totaled in record numbers over the course of both conferences, with many participants returning five-star feedback.

All are encouraged to continue to meaningfully engage in the Delaware STEM ecosystem and community by attending the Seventh Delaware STEM Educator Awards, which will be held on November 4, 2021 from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.

All are encouraged to continue the conversations surrounding equity and Delaware STEM by attending the 7th Delaware STEM Educator Awards, which will be held in October 2022.

Jan Castro is a writer, University of Delaware alum, and native Delawarean who has been a proud student of Delaware educators.