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When the death of George Floyd sparked a national conversation about race, Sana Syed and other physicians wanted to do something to address racial equity. 

Syed, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, said she reached out to Charlottesville City Schools and asked what she could do to help. 

Syed learned from the division’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math director, Nigel Standish, that the CCS was trying to raise money to purchase STEM box supplies. Syed has experience writing grants, so she put her grant writing skills to use to help Standish.

The supplies include measuring tape, scissors, a thermometer, a spring scale, masking tape, transparent tape, duct tape and measuring cups, according to the project. 

When learning transitioned to home, it became apparent that access to STEM tools and materials were unequal and that the projects and challenges needed to be adjusted, Standish wrote in an email Monday morning. 

“The iSTEM team has determined that the materials requested for the STEM boxes offer the students the capability to complete a wide range of projects and challenges,” Standish said. “… 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.” 

Giving city schools students access to STEM tools could solve a greater need: to fight the shortage of minorities in STEM fields. 

Experts said there’s a shortage of women, Black and Latino workers in the STEM workforce. About a decade ago, Black people and Latinos accounted for 6% and 7%, respectively, of workers in the STEM fields, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data. 

The same report noted “among science and engineering graduates, men are employed in STEM occupations at twice the rate of women: 31% compared with 15%.” 

The lack of diversity in the STEM workforce is something Syed has experienced firsthand. Four years ago, when she joined the faculty, she said she was the first woman and the first person of color in her division.

Syed is from South Asia and acknowledged that she has her own privilege. Her parents were not discriminated against as immigrants, she said. But she said she’s aware that Black people in the U.S. have faced the most discrimination than other racial groups.   

“We’re seeing decades of not prioritizing [diversity in STEM]” she said.

Syed’s fundraiser is among several initiatives happening across the nation to address racial inequities, including school districts cutting ties with school resource officers and the removal of confederate statues.

The goal is to raise $30,000 to purchase supplies for K-4 students in six city schools.

The plan is to finish the fundraiser by Aug. 14, and the supplies would be distributed by the last week of August. Parents can pick up the supplies at their child’s school. And for those who are not able to make it during the scheduled hours, UVA staff will do home-delivery.

 There won’t be a selection process to get the materials, Syed said. 

“If you are in kindergarten through fourth-grade in the elementary schools, all of you will get the materials,” she said. 

Anyone interested in supporting the project can do so here. 

Man in gray jack looks at camera with slight smile

Billy Jean Louis

Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.