Network to prepare students of color for math degrees receives NSF grant

AMES, Iowa – The National Science Foundation has announced a grant for an Iowa State University-led initiative designed to provide a network of support for students of color interested in mathematics.

The $300,000 grant is one of 27 awarded through NSF’s INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) program, which aims to enhance U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Michael Young, an assistant professor of mathematics at Iowa State, and the “Building on Strengths” research team will use the grant to design and pilot the Mathematician Affiliates of Color Network.

Young says the network will include mathematicians of color from U.S. colleges, universities and industry who want to invest time in, share their expertise with, and learn from students of color and their teachers. Mathematicians will work with teachers in their local school districts to help them understand university expectations and prepare students for college coursework.

Academic and industry leaders will also serve as mentors to middle school and high school students. Young expects graduate students involved with MOCA – Mathematicians of Color Alliance – at Iowa State to serve as mentors to students in the Ames School District. He says reaching students at a younger age will not only help with preparation, but also erase some of the stereotypes that prevent students of color from excelling in STEM fields.

“Society tells all students it is OK if they are not good at math or science. When you add in the additional factors of oppression that students of color experience in society and the classroom, it makes it very easy for the students to decide this isn’t for them,” Young said. “We hope this will lead to students having more opportunities in the classroom.”

For example, Young says many images used to illustrate math only include white men. Through his work with the DEBT-M – Designing for Equity By Thinking in and about Mathematics – program, Young has seen the “significant impact it has on girls and students of color” to see mathematicians who look like them. DEBT-M is a collaboration of researchers and teachers working to make math classes equitable for students of color.

Young is collaborating with Eden Badertscher and Al Cuoco, both from Education Development Center (EDC), and Maisha Moses from the Young People’s Project, in addition to Aris Winger, at Georgia Gwinnett College, to develop the Mathematician Affiliates of Color Network. They will use the two-year grant to create and launch a pilot program. Young says the goal is to take what they learn from the pilot and expand the network.

“Our goal is to reach as many students in as many school districts as possible, so that all the children feel heard and visible,” Young said.