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Engaging Historically Black Colleges and Universities through Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Education and Community Engagement

Published February 26, 2018

Kelly Witter and her team of volunteers at EPA’s award-winning Community Engagement and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Outreach Program are using education to help communities solve problems and protect the environment. Through this program at Research Triangle Park (RTP) in North Carolina, they have reached more than 100,000 students and community members.

An exciting and recent development for the STEM Outreach Program is their partnership with a local arm of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) based at Hillside High School, in Durham, North Carolina. They coordinated a successful visit with the school in early January 2018, including meet and greet sessions with Black engineers at EPA, and will be participating in Engineering Career Day at Hillside this month.

They are also engaging with college and graduate students at Historically Black Colleges and UniversitiesExit, also known as HBCUs. Their work with HBCUs is important in serving minority communities and in helping strengthen and promote interest in STEM careers with the understanding that a diverse workforce is essential in addressing future environmental challenges. HBCUs can be found across the continental United States. Currently there are 10 HBCUs in North Carolina, the oldest is Shaw University (established 1865), and the newest is North Carolina Central University (NCCU- established 1910).

EPA staff in RTP have collaborated with NCCU and other local HBCUs, including Shaw University, St. Augustine’s University, and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) State University on STEM-related activities and outreach. Dr. Antonio Baines, a Toxicologist, Cancer Researcher and Associate Professor at NCCU, has initiated and coordinated recent interactions between NCCU and EPA. He teaches undergraduate courses in Environmental Biology and Scientific Writing and a Graduate Toxicology course. His students have had the opportunity for in-class guest lectures from EPA researchers such as Dr. Cavin Ward-Caviness, a computational biologist whose research helps determine which populations are most susceptible to air pollution. His work identifies people who have increased sensitivity to air pollution exposure or may have underlying risk factors, and thus might need a more focused response or messaging to protect them from different environmental risks. According to Dr. Baines, Dr. Ward-Caviness’s presentation on how air quality affects overall health was very impactful.

More recently, EPA hosted Dr. Baines’ toxicology graduate students, providing tours of the EPA laboratory facilities. The visit also included lectures by EPA researchers on biotransformation enzymes, environmental justice, and epigenetics. The biotransformation enzymes lecture by EPA’s Dr. Ron Hines dynamically reinforced Dr. Baines’ classroom lectures and generated new questions from his students.

For Dr. Baines’ students, talking to toxicologists and seeing how toxicology is applied in real -world and lab settings allows them to appreciate this field of knowledge. Being able to take his students to an EPA lab is an important way for them to gain an early appreciation for what toxicology really entails, beyond the classroom experience. They have a better sense of the work that these scientists actually do and the paths they can follow to pursue a STEM career. 

From Dr. Baines' perspective, “There are opportunities that NCCU and other local institutions have due to their proximity to EPA and other federal research facilities. There is a need for ongoing and enhanced collaborations and linkages, including internships and research partnerships, to help build the future of STEM practitioners at NCCU and other institutions in the Research Triangle area.”

This month the STEM Outreach Program is participating in NCCU’s STEM Career Fair and will be hosting a large group of undergraduate students from NCCU’s Student Support Services program on March 2nd, 2018 for a day filled with tours of the facilities and speed mentoring sessions.

EPA’s STEM Outreach Program in RTP began in 2004, with the aim of supporting EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment by increasing awareness, providing education, and inspiring the public, especially K-12 students. The Program coordinates a wide variety of activities, including offering guest speakers and judges at science fairs, engaging in impactful community partnerships, and providing hands-on educational programming for students and teachers in central N.C. and beyond. Since its beginning, staff volunteers have donated over 22,000 hours of their time to provide hands-on STEM programming and community engagement efforts to communities in the Raleigh-Durham area.

For more information or to contact speakers: https://www.epa.gov/rtp-speakers-bureau.