Study after study shows that women, especially African-American women, are underrepresented in STEM jobs. Sheretta Butler-Barnes, PhD, a professor at the Brown School, wants to change those statistics.
For six years, Butler-Barnes has partnered with the Girls Inc. Eureka! Program and WashU’s Institute for School Partnership, to lead a six-week summer intensive that engages Black high school girls in STEM research. After a COVID-19 hiatus, the program returned this summer to Washington University’s Danforth Campus with the addition of co-instructor Seanna Leath, PhD, assistant professor of psychological & brain sciences in Arts & Sciences.
In a ground-floor classroom on a sunny mid-June day, about 20 African American high school girls are learning how to design and build a survey. Their task is to create 20 thought-provoking questions. And no watered-down curriculum for these students, either. The coursework is advanced.
“I am teaching them the same concepts I teach to my doctoral students,” Butler-Barnes explained. “They’re learning both quantitative and qualitative research methods. We’re teaching them critical thinking about data, data measurement and design, and mixed methods research design. Yes, all of this for high school students!”
Program participants come from various schools in the St. Louis region, including Ritenour High School, Incarnate Word Academy, Hazelwood, Webster Groves High School, and Cardinal Ritter College Prep.
What sets this program apart is its unique approach, combining qualitative and quantitative research methods with a focus on the experiences of young Black women and girls. While Butler-Barnes focuses on the quantitative part, Leath oversees the qualitative aspect. She guides the students in developing questions and conducting interviews with each other. Survey topics encompassed a wide range of subjects, including narcissism and social media, the Black superwoman schema, mental health, and self-esteem.
“Help each other with questions. How does the question sound? Does it make sense? What survey scale are you using? Butler-Barnes said to the group, adding “It’s all about teamwork.”
Beyond cultivating an interest in STEM, the program aims to foster critical thinking skills. “I want them to read numbers, to know what they mean, to see what populations are included and which ones are not,” Butler-Barnes emphasized.
The students agreed the program was challenging but extremely rewarding. Kaleigh Morgan, a 10th grader at Cardinal Ritter expressed her enthusiasm, saying, “I’ve learned so many new words and so many new things. My brain is just flooded with knowledge.”
Dominique Griffin, also a sophomore at Cardinal Ritter, highlighted the inspiring presence of Butler-Barnes and Leath. “You don’t really see a lot of African American women professors; it’s inspiring,” she said.
Several of the girls expressed a strong interest in pursuing STEM careers, sharing aspirations of becoming a dermatologist, psychologist, pediatric neurosurgeon, and nurse anesthetist.