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UIC to lead $8.8M grant analyzing what ‘Blackness’ means in STEM

Terrell Morton, UIC assistant professor in the College of Education.

The University of Illinois Chicago is one of six institutions that will split an $8.8 million National Science Foundation grant to develop theories, research methods and tools to help expand and tailor the field of STEM education to support Black students.

The five-year project will be led by Terrell Morton, UIC assistant professor of identity and justice in STEM education. He will serve as the principal investigator for the overall project and for UIC specifically. Other universities involved in the effort include Tennessee State University, the University of Texas at Austin, American University, Georgia State University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The title of the project is, “Collaborative Research: EHR Racial Equity: Examining Blackness in Postsecondary STEM Education through a Multidimensional-Multiplicative Lens.”

Morton, who is in the department of educational psychology in the College of Education, said that while there is a lot of desire to foster racial equity, particularly at the policy level in STEM education, the assumption is often that every Black person is homogeneous, simply because of their shared racial identity.

“We assume that every Black person needs the exact same thing because of their racial identity as Black,” Morton said. “The purpose of this project is to say that not every Black person is the same, even if they all racially identify as Black.”

The goal is to develop and tailor racial equity-focused policies and practices in STEM education and to facilitate increased access and sustained engagement in STEM for Black undergraduate students. This includes looking at what “Blackness means for individuals,” Morton said.

Morton points to contemporary literature that suggests that the embodiment of “Blackness” differs according to many dimensions, including ethnic identity, where people grew up and if they are the first in their family to attend college, how far back their ancestry is traced in the U.S. and other factors.

“As a result of these different identity factors in addition to our gender identity, sexuality, religion and other salient identities we may understand the world differently,” he said. “If we want to create policies in STEM education that are equitable and pay attention to how people see the world, we need to create new tools and theories and outcomes.”

The schools involved in the project are purposely diverse and include two historically Black colleges and universities, two predominantly white institutions, one majority Black institution and one Hispanic-Serving Institution. They are also located in geographically distinct areas, including the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Southwest and Midwest regions, to gain a broader representation to analyze.

Each of the schools will serve as its own research site but will share protocols, recruitment practices and perspectives. Each of the institutions will implement the protocols in their regions. For example, Morton will be tasked with taking the created protocols and instruments and implementing them in the Chicago region through the recruitment of Black undergraduate students at four-year universities in the Chicago area who will share how they understand their identity as Black within STEM.  Eventually, a national survey would be created and analyzed.

“This project will produce tools of analysis and translational products that will change how institutional and organizational policies, practices and future research treat Black people in STEM, thereby promoting tailored resources and supports to meet Black people’s nuanced needs,” according to the grant.

The funding comes from the NSF’s Racial Equity in STEM Education program. The program supports research and practice projects that investigate how considerations of racial equity factor into the improvement of STEM education and workforce.

“This program aligns with NSF’s core value of supporting outstanding researchers and innovative thinkers from across the nation’s diversity of demographic groups, regions and types of organizations,” according to NSF officials.

Morton is a scholar-activist whose research focuses on identity expression in STEM education for marginalized groups. Morton began at UIC in August and has experience as a co-founder of the nonprofit Christine W. Avery Learning Center in Asheville, North Carolina. Prior to UIC, he was an assistant professor of identity and justice in STEM education from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

He earned his doctorate in education – learning sciences and psychological studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his Master of Science in neurobiology and neurosciences from the University of Miami. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Other partners involved in the project include, Andrea Tyler at Tennessee State University; Tia Madkins and Yasmiyn Irizzary at the University of Texas at Austin; Shari Watkins and Brian McGowan at American University; Nickolaus Ortiz at Georgia State University and Paula Groves Price at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Additionally, Ashley Woodson at Albion College; Jennifer Adams at the University of Calgary; Whitney McCoy at Duke University and ReAnna Roby at Vanderbilt University play critical roles in the design and execution of this project.