Tokiwa Smith discusses SEM Link and STEM

One of the goals of the Big Words Blog Site is advocacy of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) awareness for under-represented minorities, and starting discussions about increasing access. I personally try to get involved in these types of efforts whenever my schedule permits it.  In the fall of 2016, I assisted Dr. Vernon Morris and his team from Howard University’s NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS) at the Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link’s (SEM Link) First Annual DC, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) STEM Career Fair.  Recently I had the opportunity to interview the Founder and Executive Director of SEM Link, Tokiwa Smith.  We discussed the organization, its inception and goals, and the current challenges of exposing under-represented minorities to STEM education which would lead to their ascension into these careers.

Anwar Dunbar: First off Tokiwa, thank you for agreeing to talk about your background and very important for individuals from our backgrounds to openly discuss our careers and how we got to where we are. With that said, let’s start with you.  Talk about your background.

Tokiwa Smith: I have a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering from Florida A & M University. I’ve used my STEM degree to help inspire and train future STEM professionals – pre-college and undergraduate students – through my work at various academic institutions, non-profit organizations and government agencies.

AD:  Most of my African American peers in STEM had a mentor (myself included), someone who recognized their potential and encouraged them to pursue a STEM career.  Was there a mentor or mentors along the way who encouraged you to study Chemical Engineering, or were you always interested in that discipline?

TS: Even though I grew up in a college educated family and most of the adults in the village that raised me were college educated, there were no STEM professionals in my network, other than my aunt who was a Microbiologist for the Food and Drug Administration. I was a girl who always loved and excelled in math and science.  My 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Richardson, noticed my aptitude for math and science and told my mother to encourage me in those subjects. So throughout my formative years, I was encouraged by my mother and my teachers to excel in math and science.  I thus always had confidence in my abilities in STEM.  It was in 10th grade, in Mrs. Shy’s chemistry class, that I discovered my favorite STEM discipline was chemistry.  In 11th grade as I was getting tutored in physics by a friend’s father who was a Cosmetic Chemist, and I discovered that I didn’t want to be a chemist.  I did some research and learned about chemical engineering.  I decided to major in Chemical Engineering because it combined my love of chemistry and math.

I didn’t meet a female African American Chemical Engineer until my sophomore year in college. The following year I took my first class with professor Dr. G. Dale Wesson, the only African American professor in the department.   I was further exposed to Chemical Engineering through his mentorship and his taking me to my first STEM professional conference. At that conference I was able to meet a myriad of people – students from other colleges and universities, and STEM professionals who made me aware of the possibilities for career options that I could pursue with a Chemical Engineering degree.

AD: What is SEM Link and how did you start it?  Why did you start it?

TS: Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link, Inc. (SEM Link) is a tax-exempt national nonprofit organization, which I founded in 2005 in Atlanta, GA, on the premise that exposure to members of the STEM communities is critical to student achievement and career exploration in math and science.  Our programs and events enhance the STEM educational experience for K-12 students by providing them with opportunities to engage in hands-on STEM activities, exploration of STEM careers and learning about real-world applications of STEM in their classrooms and communities.

The idea to start SEM Link came to me in 2002 while working at a school in Atlanta. I saw many brilliant students who had the aptitude to pursue STEM careers, but weren’t considering them because they didn’t know any adults who were STEM professionals.  I had people in my network that I started inviting to the school for various activities (career exploration activities and tutoring, etc.) to provide opportunities for students to meet and interact with STEM professionals.

In 2005, I decided to create a nonprofit organization to expose more youth to STEM education and careers; specifically to provide opportunities for them to meet and interact with STEM professionals and to engage in hands-on STEM activities. I chose the name Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link (SEM Link) because, at the time, there was no focus on technology (T).  I wanted the organization to be the link (connection) between K-12 students and the STEM community.  Our vision statement is, “Unveiling potential through exposure,” because the inaugural Board of Directors and I thought it best described the vision that we had and the work that we wanted to do as an organization.  We could help create the pipeline for the future STEM workforce by exposing youth to STEM education and careers.

AD: What are you goals for SEM Link?

TS: SEM Link currently serves two urban areas, Atlanta and the DMV. It is our goal within the next five to seven years to expand to six additional areas. The urban areas we are looking at expanding to include: Chicago, Dallas, Miami and other urban areas on the east coast, in the south and midwest. In addition, we are in the process of transitioning from a startup phase to a sustainability phase. The process includes recruiting new members to the Board of Directors, increasing the number of individual donors, building and maintaining relationships with corporate partners, and starting a major gifts program in the next fiscal year.

AD: What are the challenges in getting under-represented minorities involved in STEM?

TS: Minorities, especially African Americans, come from cultures that have had scientists, engineers, mathematicians and inventors dating back to Ancient African civilizations.  African Americans have continued throughout history and today to make an impact in the STEM fields as professionals and inventors.  The first challenge to me is representation; minorities don’t see enough folks that look like them who are STEM professionals.  Students aren’t told enough of the stories of the successes of former and current minority STEM professionals.  They aren’t exposed often enough to opportunities for them to meet and interact with STEM professionals of color.

The second challenge is that students don’t get an opportunity to engage enough in hands-on STEM activities inside the classroom and during out of school time. Although it’s important for students to learn and master STEM concepts and theories, it isn’t limited to a textbook.  It’s hands-on and it asks and answers questions that we may or may not already have the answers to.

The final challenge is that at times we only encourage the “smart” kids to pursue STEM careers. There are children that have a natural inclination towards STEM and you can observe it based on their interests and how they play. For example, a kid that collects insects for fun has a natural inclination to be a biologist even if they may have academic deficiencies in school.  We should also encourage those kids to pursue STEM careers and provide them with the academic support they need to overcome those deficiencies and excel academically.

AD:  That’s interesting.  I can confirm the lack of STEM role models.  In my youth in Buffalo, NY, I don’t remember seeing any STEM professionals of color.  Biology was my favorite course and I just naturally followed it.

In terms of being careful not to only focus on the “smart” kids, one of the things my father, a retired science teacher, told us once was that individuals who grow up in inner cities and substandard conditions are actually very creative and inventive out of necessity. Malcolm X also discussed this in his autobiography regarding the wasted intellectual talent in our inner cities.

I was talking to a fellow toxicologist about how it’s more difficult to give students a good look at parts of the biological sciences because you have to take them to research centers to see the experiments being performed versus computers, cell phones and designing apps and video games – the more “techie-stuff”. Have you found that students seem to flock towards one more than the other?

TS: I think the reason that kids are flocking towards techie stuff is because of the current trend to push teaching all kids to code. The reality is not all kids have the ability or are interested in coding and tech.  However, coding and tech are easy to push because it is something that the general public can understand because, unlike other STEM disciplines, they can easily see the connections to their everyday lives.  Those of us that work in other STEM disciplines must do a better job of telling the stories of what we do as STEM professionals and help the general public to see the connections between STEM disciplines and their everyday lives.

I disagree that the only way to expose kids is to take them to places where professionals in engineering, biological and physical sciences work. Although that would be nice and it is a great experience for the students, it isn’t always feasible.  Kids make decisions on what they will become when they grow up based on the careers of the adults in their lives; even people that they may meet only once.  A child meeting a STEM professional one time and learning what is possible for them can change the entire trajectory of their lives.  So the first step is for STEM professionals to get out of their workplace and go to where the kids are – schools, community events, etc. – and talk to the kids about what you do, why you do it and your career path to get there.

The second thing is to talk to kids about how your fields connect to their everyday lives. For example, a toxicologist can talk to students about things like lead poisoning and how it can be detected in one’s body. The final thing is that STEM professionals can engage students in hands-on and/or project based activities that can expose the students to their field.

AD:  Well, Tokiwa, those are all of the questions that I have.  Do you have any parting comments?  Would you like to tell the readers how they can learn more about SEM Link, and where they can contact you, on Twitter for example?

TS: My parting comment is the keys to getting kids interested in pursuing STEM are encouragement and exposure. We must encourage students to engage in activities in the STEM disciplines for which they show an aptitude and passion.  We also must encourage students to engage in out of school activities – doing hands-on STEM activities on their own. We must expose them to as many STEM disciplines and out of school time activities as we can. As adults, we must be willing to step outside of our comfort zone and sometimes go against the trends.  If we do these things, we will allow our children to discover a passion and aptitude to pursue STEM careers.

To find more information about SEM Link, you can visit our website at: www.semsuccess.org, and sign up for our mailing list. You can follow us on social media as well. Our Twitter handle is @semlink.  We are also on Facebook and Instagram.  Lastly, you can connect with me on Twitter.  My Twitter handle is @tokiwana.

AD:  Well thank you, Tokiwa, once again for your willingness to discuss SEM Link.  It’s very important work and myself and others look forward to seeing your effort grow.  Also thank you for providing the pictures used in this piece.

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If this interview, you might also enjoy

Dr. Quin Capers, IV discusses his path #BlackMenInMedicine, and the present landscape of medical education
Dr. Namandje Bumpus discusses her educational path, and her research career in Pharmacology
A Black History Month interview with Howard University’s Dr. Vernon Morris part one
A Black History Month interview with Howard University’s Dr. Vernon Morris part two

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A review of Hidden Figures

I recently co-wrote movie reviews with my brother Amahl Dunbar for Marvel’s Dr. Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – both of the Super Hero and Science Fiction genres.  This review will switch gears slightly and focus on a film with more of a historical focus; Hidden Figures based upon the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margo Lee Shetterly.  The film starred Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner.  Unlike the previous reviews which were done in a conversational format, Amahl and I will independently give our thoughts on what stood out to us about the film.

Amahl:  In terms of Hidden Figures, I was impressed with NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer).  In the story, when IBM first delivers the computer to NASA, the engineers figured out how to assemble it, but they couldn’t operate it.  The computer was critical for expediting NASA’s space travel calculations.  Dorothy saw tremendous opportunity and acted on it.  She had the foresight to learn the programming language Fortran (Formula Translation), from a book at a local library.  When she demonstrated she could operate and program the computer, she was immediately promoted and transferred.  She also had the foresight to teach Fortran to the other female African American mathematicians thus ensuring their long term employment at NASA.  So I think her having the insight to see the opportunity in front of her and then the assertiveness to take advantage of it were huge and great teaching points.  These are two very important ingredients for success.

Hidden Figures is as culturally and historically relevant as all the seasons of the Cosby Show.  I can’t wait for it to come out on Blue-Ray.

Anwar:  As a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) advocate and professional myself, a current challenge is getting African American students interested in STEM, and then empowering them to stick with it.  Recently at the kickoff for the Toxicology Mentoring and Skills Development Training program’s inaugural weekend, I had a discussion with the chair of the program and we discussed the difficulties in getting minorities involved in Toxicology (and other STEM careers).  At the same meeting one of the speakers noted that the majority of the time when minority students get discouraged and leave the sciences, they usually change their majors to one of the Humanities or the Arts.  This is not a knock on the non-science fields but instead in part is a reflection of how the sciences are viewed by students of color – especially for those who have no STEM professionals in their families – our case as children.  For me, this is the beauty of Hidden Figures.

Without giving away the plot beyond what my brother described above, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monea) who all greatly impacted the Space Race of the early 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Each of the three leads played key roles in the United States’ mission to put a man in space – optimization of the space craft (Jackson), implementation of the IMB computer to expedite NASA’s calculations (Vaughn), and performing the initial critical calculations for the astronauts’ space travel (Johnson).  Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Katherine Goble Johnson seemed to be the main story line as she was central to working out the calculations for John Glenn’s orbit and re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

Hidden Figures is a valuable film in that it shows African American women portrayed in ways that we’re normally not used to seeing them in media.  While she’s most known these days for playing “Cookie” on Fox’s Empire for example, Taraji P. Henson’s role as Katherine Goble Johnson is arguably a more important as it depicts an African American woman performing complex mathematical calculations impacting NASA’s space missions.  Most importantly, the film highlights the contributions of African Americans to one of the United States’ most celebrated breakthroughs; manned space travel.  Unfortunately prior to the movie it wasn’t widely recognized who all contributed to John Glen’s mission – something that occurs often in US History when it comes to people of color.

Hidden Figures is a very important film to see particularly for young children who haven’t decided on a career path.  If they have an inkling of an aptitude for STEM, films like Hidden Figures can definitely help encourage them to pursue a STEM career.  A film like Hidden Figures would have been very valuable in my own youth though I was fortunate to have the pieces in place to allow me to pursue my own careers in Pharmacology and Toxicology – environment and mentors.  It’s not that way for every child/student.

Our Twitter handles are @amahldunbar and @BWArePowerful. If you liked this review, please do click the “like” button, leave comments, and share it. Please visit my YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussions76. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.