STEM Boxes and Mentorship: Putting Our Money, Efforts, and Brains Together to Support Our Children

November 2, 2020 by

Q&A Dr. Sana Syed, Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition

Q: Tell me about this project.
I knew that we had to come together as a community to support our children. We were worried that Covid-19 would worsen disparities in families who already have less in-home educational resources, so we reached out to the Charlottesville City School’s (CCS) iSTEM team. The team, led by Dr Standish, had already decided to make STEM boxes for students to use at home, ensuring every student had an equal opportunity to engage with the STEM curriculum at least with regards to access to equipment. So this was an easy and immediate way we could provide support.

The boxes included measuring tape, scissors, a thermometer, a spring scale, masking tape, transparent tape, duct tape, and measuring cups.

Sana and the team after packing STEM boxes.

We finished the fundraising on August 14 and distributed supplies to the schools at the end of September. Parents were able to pick up the supplies at their child’s school. Read more about the story here.

Q: Why is STEM so important?
A: STEM matters so much because those are traditionally some of the hardest fields to get into. Young children often say, “I’m not smart enough” and stop there. I wasn’t the smartest in my class, but my parents always encouraged me to aim for what ever I wanted. It was never about what I could or could not do, it was always about think through what you really want and once you decide, we know you will accomplish what you set your mind to. My parents really helped develop grit and persistence in my overall outlook on life. Not everyone is as lucky as I was to have had access to such role models. This lack of mentoring and the ability to aim for high places is reflected, for example, in our schools of medicine.

Diversity statistics from the University Health System point out the severity of the under-representation. To give context, the national average of faculty members from under-represented minorities (URM) in the field of medicine is 7.19%, while data from the September 2020 diversity dashboard indicates the University’s School of Medicine is at a glaring 5.27% URM. The number for the Department of Pediatrics are is better overall, 10.53% (14), but if you specifically look at the break-up, it is still a work in progress, with the number faculty who identify as black as the smallest group. STEM engagement early on, really as early as elementary, is one of the ways we can improve the leaky pipeline that leads to the lack of diversity we see in the medical hallways. We have to actively engage with our community and build the STEM mentoring pipeline to make that happen.

Q: Why was this project so important to you?
After the murder of George Floyd and amidst a global pandemic, I was frustrated, emotional, and determined.  I needed to take that energy and turn it into action. There is so much uncertainty right now. Faculty salaries have been cut, staff members have been furloughed, and so many of us don’t know what we’ll do about childcare this year. This seemed like a way I could make a change.

I grew up in Pakistan and I really did not face racism or gender-related bias in my educational and professional encounters. Before I moved here for my residency training, I pictured the United States to be like what we see on sitcoms like “Friends” or “Scrubs” – a country where you could dream big and achieve your dreams by virtue of hard work. It took me several years of working here to realize the prevalent systematic inequities. I had grown up thinking of the US as this first world, highly developed country and I was pretty taken aback by this realization. It was also unbelievable to me that many Americans don’t accept that there is racism in this country and that in 2020 we are still trying to ramp up programs to address this. Now, after working for 10 years in America, I sadly have firsthand experience of the sort of racism and gender inequity that I did not have to deal with while growing up. As a person of color, an immigrant, a Muslim, and a woman, I have had to deal with all sorts of assumptions and comments from my patients, their parents, colleagues, and in the community. When I joined the faculty at UVA, I was the first woman and first person of color in my division. We routinely have our UVA medical students join our weekly Peds GI Division meeting. I had a Black medical student share with me how at a table of white faces, I was the only dark female face amongst the faculty and how all the other faculty were men and all the females in the room were nurses. This is in no way meant to undervalue our nursing colleagues – it is meant to point out that, yes, as a woman of color, I can be the doctor in the room, the person with the doctoral degree, and that diversity is a strength. As a side note, I truly do love my Division and the Department of Pediatrics as a whole – I have always felt that my opinion is valued and respected. I share my experiences to say – the progress we have made is excellent BUT we have a lot more to do.

I also had a personal reason for getting involved with this project – my son is five and a half and was about to start kindergarten, so this is important to me on many levels. I want him to have the best education possible and at the same time, I really believe all children should have the best education. My grandfather was a high school teacher and my father used to share how finances were always tight when he was growing up. My grandfather would routinely financially support the educational needs of the children in his school, even though he was not a wealthy man. He would tutor children for free. This was the example that was set for me.

I know I work a lot – there have been weeks in the last 10 years in this medical journey when I worked a 100 hours a week. However, even that is a reminder of my privilege. The fact that I’ve had that chance to prove myself in a highly competitive field is privilege.  I was told when someone says “no”, it means “try again”. When you are from an underprivileged background, you take no for an answer and move on.

Here’s what I focused on: How do I optimize positive energy? How do I feed my soul on days when things feel hard? What is the impact I want to have beyond my immediate self?

Sana making deliveries!

Q: How did you come up with this idea?
First, Dr. Michael Williams sent an email to a group of us that he had identified by searching department websites for people of color. His email said, “My hope this that we, who do identify as Faculty of Color, might know each other, know that several of us are experiencing similar if not precisely the same, challenges in our professional and academic lives living here in Charlottesville, particularly in these times and know that we aren’t in this alone.”

Michael has an amazing story. He is an excellent example of what works. When he was in high school, he received an award that provided direct mentorship from high school, through medical school until he became a faculty member. He is one of two persons of color on faculty in the Department of Surgery and the second person of color to receive tenureship. It all happened because of that mentorship.

Dr. Mark Fleming is one of our young budding surgery residents who plans to be a Pediatric Surgeon one day. He has been a key part of the Housestaff Council for Diversity and Inclusion (HCDI) so I reached out to him to help spread the word on social media. Markie then engaged the UVA HCDI to help construct the boxes also which was amazing!

Next, the SOM faculty gathered at the Enslaved Workers Memorial dedication event, where we all took a knee. We said, “What do we do next? The time for the action is now.”

A lot of this whole project was accomplished via networks – we were getting closer to the deadline of when Nigel’s team needed to get supplies out to the children and we were short of our $30k goal. Dr. Jeff Gander, one of our Pediatric surgeons, reached out and offered to help. He shared the message widely among his networks – we actually had the Health System pitch in $5k too so we ended up raising a total of $35k!

Q: How did you get started?
A: I reached out to Michael Williams after I got his email to discuss what to do and how to do it. Michael connected me to leaders at Venable Elementary School and Nigel Standish, the Director of Science, Engineering, and STEM for the Charlottesville City Schools, and I started working together.

I asked him what he needed. His answer was that after going virtual in the spring, the Venable team realized that students that were previously doing great on STEM assignments were now doing poorly. The team quickly figured out that kids didn’t have the supplies they needed at home. Nigel told me that teachers for the STEM program were raising money for their own supplies while also trying to navigate how to teach virtually.

I offered to help with grant writing to support this effort. To give context, biomedical grants have a wide range and can be between $20-30k all the way up to millions of dollars. I was pretty stunned when Nigel said it would take only $30k to supply all K-4 students for all 6 schools in the City.

I told Nigel, “Let’s just start! Let’s put together a fundraiser.” I started by sending emails to every chair at the SOM and then Dean Wilkes. I thought, “Why stop here?” So, I emailed Phil Bourne, Director of the Data Science Institute, Kevin McDonald, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Community Partnerships, and Karin Skeen, Administrator, Women’s and Children’s Services. Then I figured I’d keep going! I emailed Craig Kent, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, and Jim Ryan, President of UVA.

Then I reached out to everyone I know in Charlottesville, as well as local businesses like S&P Global and WillowTree. I asked for connections to local reporters and let them know about the fundraiser and that we’d be buying supplies and putting together STEM supply boxes ourselves. NBC and CBS both wanted to shoot footage of us making and delivering boxes. They also helped spread the word about the fundraiser.

Q: Now that STEM boxes are complete, what’s your next project?
We want to implement our goals rapidly but with thought. The next goal is to develop a STEM mentoring program and start with young students. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the community and there are volunteers already working on middle school STEM programming, but there is an unfulfilled need in the elementary school population.

In an ideal world we would start this fall and provide 1:1 mentorship for each K-6 student in the Charlottesville City School district. So, if there are about 3,000 kids in the school district, we would want 3,000 volunteers to serve as mentors. Realistically, it would be more like groups of 5 to 10 children per volunteer and we’d like to do a 1 hour a week program. But there are a lot of logistics to plan out which all takes time – how should we run a mentorship during a pandemic – how do we gather volunteers, how do we complete background checks, how do we social distance, how do we get transportation?, etc. We have also had local business owners offer to support additional fund raisers, so beginning the planning for that will be another next step for us. The main need at this point is to have either more hours in a day or to have full-time administrative support for this work. We have made so many bridges with so many groups and have a nice momentum to build off.

Q: Any final thoughts?
I really am so happy we did this and decided to engage with STEM for school-children – it has been such a source of positive energy and I have had the opportunity to meet so many different people. I am amazed at the dedication of the STEM team and how deeply they think of the needs of their students. I have also been astounded by the sheer volume and breath of folks who have written to volunteer and help.

Moving forward, we need to continue to put our money, our efforts, and our brains together if we truly believe in diversity and equity and think creatively about how to get our children what they need. There is a critical need for action now for our vulnerable children and really this is the time for us to act.


Q&A with Dr. Mark Fleming II, General Surgery Resident

Markie and Sana prepping STEM boxes.

Q: How did you get involved in this project?
A: Given my role as an e-board member of UVA’s Housestaff Council for Diversity and Inclusion, and also as former president of HCDI leading DEI initiatives at the University, Sana reached out to me with this wonderful idea and wanted to partner with me and HCDI to help her accomplish it.

Q: Why was this important to you?
A: This STEM project was very important to me because I understood how important it was to do my part to address the huge disparity that was augmented by the pandemic as it relates to virtual learning resources for students. An added bonus was that it addressed STEM learning in particular and would help to stimulate young minds, which could in turn inspire them to want to pursue a STEM career.

Q: What’s the next step for you?
A: The next step for me is to continue my overall DEI work through HCDI. This includes significant community engagement and working to help address problems identified by community members via HCDI’s platform.

Q: What would you like people to know about you/this effort?
A: For me personally, I do this for the greater good in an effort to pay it forward without looking for anything in return. The satisfaction I get from channeling my energy into projects like this one is all I need to keep going. I understand firsthand what it is like to not have adequate learning resources as I pursued my career in medicine, and how it can place someone at a disadvantage. Being able to help others has always been my passion – especially working with under-served populations. I will always strive to do what I can, both in and out of the hospital, to serve my fellow community members.


Q&A with Dr. Nigel Standish, Director of Science, Engineering, and STEM, Charlottesville City Schools

Q: Can you tell me more about your perspective on STEM across the school system?
A: I think of STEM as a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving. This avenue of learning is particularly important today because modern issues require diverse skill sets, diverse perspectives, and diverse solutions. Charlottesville City Schools iSTEM teachers purposefully encourage students to approach problems in unique ways utilizing knowledge and skills they acquire in other classes. This is reflected in the STEM mission statement which states, “It is the mission of the iSTEM team to provide every student with integrated, project-based instruction. We do this by collaborating with teachers in the development and implementation of skills, strategies, and authentic, student-centered content. This engages all of our students and trains them to be active learners, resilient problem solvers, original thinkers, and informed citizens.”

An often repeated mantra in these classes is “I failed. I persisted. I nailed it.” These short statements are expounded upon in the core beliefs each STEM teacher shares:

  1. This work is hard
  2. The process and habits of mind are the goal not a successful end product
  3.  Student autonomy is critical in EVERY lesson. This includes but is not limited to:
    • Maximizing student choice
    • Encouraging productive struggle and making errors
    • Testing ideas
    • Self-selection for materials, tools, etc. (tools and materials table)
  1. Students receive feedback from the physical world
  2. Projects allow for time for students to experience multiple iterations based on data and reflect on their learning/process

Q: Why was this important to you?
When students come to the STEM labs in each of their schools, they can choose from many tools and materials to complete their projects. When learning transitioned to the home, it was apparent access to those same tools and materials was unequal and that the projects and challenges needed to be adjusted.

The STEM team has determined that the materials in the STEM Box offer the students the capability to complete a wide range of projects and challenges. With each student receiving a STEM box, our teachers can be sure that every student has equal opportunity to engage with the STEM curriculum and attain the same learning outcomes.

Q: What’s the next step for you?
A: The iSTEM teachers are working on getting a STEM box to students in grades 5, 6, and 8.

Q: What would you like people to know about this effort/your work?
Just as it is in STEM classrooms, this work could not have been successful without the hard work, support, and sacrifice of many individuals. Dr. Rosa Atkins is a champion of STEM for the city schools. President Ryan is a champion for public education. The UVA School of Medicine in general and Dr. Syed and Dr. Fleming were tireless in their energy, enthusiasm, and commitment. The CCS iSTEM teachers whose vision and belief continue to fuel this effort. And every community member who believed in the importance of STEM education and donated to make these STEM boxes a reality.

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