New England Regional Forum 2018: Dr. Talithia Williams on How to “STEMpower” Our Students
New England Regional Forum 2018: Dr. Talithia Williams on How to “STEMpower” Our StudentsCrystal Barrick, Assistant Director, Communications
Dr. Talithia Williams is best known for lectures and lessons that “take sophisticated numerical concepts and make them understandable to a wide audience.” Her keynote at the New England Regional Forum was no exception, as she dug into data about today’s high school and college students and encouraged audience members to unpack it together.
Throughout her talk, she also offered tips for "STEMpowering” more of our students—i.e., for helping more students, especially those typically unrepresented, pursue and succeed in STEM classrooms and careers. Here are a few lessons from Dr. Williams, associate dean for Research and Experiential Learning and associate professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College:
- “It starts at home.”
If you’re a parent, one way to get your children excited about—and prepared for—STEM-related subjects is to casually bring scientific and mathematical thinking into your everyday life, said Dr. Williams. For example, when her son asked, “Is Santa real?” she turned the question back to him: “What do you think?” Her two children then collected as much evidence as they could to prove or disprove the existence of Santa, tested their hypotheses, and came to a conclusion on their own. (They finished “52% sure” he was real.)
Which brings us to lesson #2:
- Don’t forget parents.
When Dr. Williams began the Sacred SISTAHS Math and Science Conference at Harvey Mudd, she saw the power of bringing African American girls together to explore STEM careers and discuss their dreams for the future. After these students met African American women who worked in math, science, and tech, they felt inspired—but often, their parents weren’t sure what to do next. That’s why Dr. Williams added parent sessions to the conference, and made sure to send informational packets home to parents who couldn't attend. Hearing experts talk about their day-to-day work (what does an engineer do, and how can someone become one?), learning about scholarships and enrichment opportunities, and having the chance to ask questions positions parents to better support their daughters' pursuits, she realized.
- “Representation matters.”
Dr. Williams found a life-long mentor and role model in Dr. Claudia Alexander, an African American woman and research scientist she met while interning at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That relationship galvanized her, especially in the early days of her career, and she wanted every young woman of color to have access to the same kind of inspiration. That's why she started Sacred SISTAHS, and why she speaks at conferences and on tv shows like PBS NOVA Wonder. But she wanted to broaden her reach—how could she help even more people see that a woman like her could excel in mathematics, and that she came from a long line?
The result is her latest book, Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics. “I wanted women of color to see that women who looked like them have done math before,” said Dr. Williams.
- “You don’t have to look like your students to influence them.”
While Dr. Williams has pushed for representation, and has spent a lot of time poring over data on the racial/ethnic breakdown of college faculty, she also reminded the audience that all of us have a role to play in making underrepresented students feel at home in STEM classrooms. She said: “We should be asking, ‘How can we better support all of our students, how can we speak life into all of our students?’" One teacher telling Williams she could be a mathematician changed the course of her life; we all hold the power to do the same for our students, she argued, no matter our background.
Dr. Williams has supported systemic initiatives that aim to bring more underrepresented students to Harvey Mudd (such as volunteering to call students who got accepted but may need more encouragement before they make their college decision), and she has changed the way she speaks to her students, to be more inclusive. For example, “I’ve stopped saying things like, ‘Clearly, we can see that…,’” when explaining mathematical concepts, she said. Because what if students can’t see it, and are made to feel like they don’t belong in her classroom? She now pauses more often during her lessons, and asks students if they need more clarification before she moves on.
As a faculty member, Dr. Williams said, “The onus is on me to do better;” and, “instead of complaining,” she has. With her lessons in mind, we all left New England Regional Forum better-equipped to do the same.