State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


New Partnership Invites Black Students to Explore the High Seas

people standing on the deck of a ship with water in the background
Several members of the HBCU cruise, from left to right: Jon Lewis, Reginald Archer, Dwight Ebanks, Lisa White, Sharon Cooper, Shondricka Burrell, Sage Lichtenwalner on the deck of the R/V Armstrong. Photo: Sharon Cooper

On the morning of January 3, faculty and scientists from several historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) boarded the R/V Armstrong  and set out to experience nine days of life at sea and a scientific cruise. Transiting from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to Pensacola, Florida, they were there to make connections with the geoscientific community and explore opportunities to make the field more welcoming to diverse students and educators.

The cruise forms part of a new initiative by the Science Technology Engineering and Math Student Experiences Aboard Ships (STEMSEAS) program. At the heart of the STEMSEAS program is a commitment to engage students from historically underrepresented backgrounds in the geosciences. A partnership between Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia Climate School, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, the program aims to open up and expand the possibilities for students who might not otherwise consider the geosciences or have a chance to gain a full understanding of these areas of study.

Launched in 2016, STEMSEAS has been making strides, bringing cohorts of diverse undergraduates out on the open sea, engaging them in geoscience and oceanography activities, connecting them with faculty and graduate students, and inviting them to have fun on the journey. It has been a rewarding project, says co-principal investigator and Lamont education and outreach officer Sharon Cooper. However, the program has not been successful at attracting significant numbers from within the African American community.

“There was a lack of direct connection. One of those reasons, which we’re aware of, is that a lot of HBCUs don’t have a specific geoscience department,” said Cooper. “Of course, that doesn’t mean the students don’t have an interest in geosciences.” She explained that students in biology, chemistry, physics and environmental science can still get into STEMSEAS, but those students may be less likely to hear about the program. So, she decided to step up outreach efforts.

During the pandemic, when ship travel was suspended, Cooper and her STEMSEAS colleagues developed a plan to partner with HBCUs to intentionally cast a wider net. They applied for an INCLUDES grant from the National Science Foundation, secured the funding, and moved the plan forward.

Eight HBCU professors made the journey. They hailed from Tennessee State University, Coppin State University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, Savannah State University, and Florida A&M. Also aboard was Loretta Williams Gurnell, the founder of the SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation—a nonprofit dedicated to supporting underserved girls and women interested in STEM careers.

By all accounts posted on the STEMSEAS blog, this first cruise was powerful and illuminating.

Gurnell wrote about the experience on the blog, asking readers and fellow cruise participants, “Now that you’ve had a chance to take a look at today’s experiences, opportunities and backgrounds to transform our own ideas, biases and future performances, how can we connect to impact or explore ways to keep the intentionality moving forward where together we transform spaces in education, business, nonprofit and community for greater outcomes of sustainability?”

These are the kinds of questions STEMSEAS aimed to inspire.

Shondricka Burrell is assistant professor of science education at Morgan State University’s School of Education and Urban Studies. She is a geoscience education researcher and will be continuing to work with the STEMSTEAS program to study whether it can create attitudinal shifts for students. Her research points to three components needed to create such a shift. One is having hands-on experiences in science, the other is the perceived relevance of science to one’s own life, and the other is one’s perceived usefulness to science. So far, she has learned that many of the HBCU students who love and excel in the sciences tend to bypass the geosciences and go into medical careers, because that is what they have observed in their communities.

“They don’t see the full range of opportunities,” said Burrell. “With underrepresented groups, students who are first generation or students who come from deeply impoverished communities, there is an educational opportunity gap,” said Burrell. “It’s not an achievement gap. This HBCU/STEMSEAS partnership is another academic pathway that students can have available to them to explore. They may not necessarily go into geosciences, but at least they will have that opportunity.”

She strongly believes it is crucial to have diverse people working on the sustainability crises society is facing, and points to deeply rooted climate justice issues.

“If all groups were at the table, we wouldn’t have food deserts. We wouldn’t have this disproportionality of who is exposed to environmental toxins, whose homes are disproportionately affected by natural disasters or hazards. We would build a society where all interests and all needs are addressed and sustainable solutions are developed,” said Burrell.

cruise participants waving on the back of a ship
Members of the HBCU cruise after successfully launching a water column temperature-measurement device off the back deck of the ship. Photo: Sharon Cooper

Cooper agrees on the vital importance of a diverse geoscientific community. She said the next step is securing more funding for additional STEMSEAS expeditions. Then, the hope is that the January transit will lead to a robust cohort of HBCU student and faculty participants.

“I felt like we have already succeeded in developing new colleague relationships. Time will tell,” said Cooper. “But I think [the January cruise] was a great beginning because we were able to spend time together talking about STEMSEAS and the benefits to their students. Some of [the HBCU professors] have already applied to be mentors on upcoming ships. So that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. Build those relationships and synergize going forward and come up with new connections. I expect we’ll see their students participating in our program.”

For Cooper, who has for years dedicated herself to attracting diverse talent to the geosciences,  this first expedition was particularly moving.

“It got really emotional at the end,” said Cooper. “It was really amazing because oceanography, for whatever reason, has skewed very white. When we brought a group of African American scientists and faculty on the ship…in terms of what the ship looked like, it was totally different than anything I’ve seen before. I was the only white woman in the group. It was a great experience. It was really amazing.”

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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