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Sathya Wandzek, staff developer at the Public Education & Business Coalition, creates paintings and jewelry from her residence in Brighton. Wandzek notes the importance of sustainability and retention of teachers of color in Colorado. “How we how do we uplift that in a way that's exciting and joyful?” Wandzek said. “STEM isn't about culture or race or identity — STEM is about curiosity and understanding our world. We need kids to realize that they're doing STEM already, that it's all around them.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

When many of Jailyn Jenkins’ students first walked into her chemistry, biology and criminal minds classes, they immediately shuddered at the thought of a career in science, unable to picture themselves spending their days in labs or hospitals. But after one year of lighting magnesium on fire, dissecting frogs and simulating court trials of famous criminals, some of the kids in her classes — filled with mostly students of color — found themselves on an unforeseen path toward science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

Now, Jenkins, who is Black, has former students pursuing neuroscience and criminal justice.

“It reaffirmed (to) me that the work was not wasted and that the exhaustion (of teaching) had a payout,” said Jenkins, who left teaching in Aurora last year and began working for Denver-based national education organization Public Education & Business Coalition. “And even though I had to step away and into a different capacity, I still have the ability to impact students of color in a variety of ways.”

Empowering students of color to envision themselves in STEM fields by learning from educators who look like them and can relate to them is a driving force behind Colorado’s continued push to diversify its teacher workforce, including in science and math. A first-of-its-kind conference, followed by regular virtual get-togethers, aims to recruit more teachers of color into STEM classes while also convening educators of color already specializing in those subjects. Organizers of the BIPOC Educational STEM Thinkers Conference, which will be held June 24 and 25 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, want to diversify and grow the state’s cadre of STEM teachers and also broaden the ways students learn about STEM topics at school.

The state has made some progress in drawing more teachers of color into schools in recent years. Still, most classrooms have white educators who are teaching students representing a diversity of races and backgrounds. Eighty-five percent of Colorado’s more than 67,850 teachers across grades and subjects this school year are white, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education, just barely down from 86% during the 2021-22 school year.

The lack of diversity among Colorado teachers has been a stubborn problem, one noticed by lawmakers, who in 2021 passed legislation that created a work group to look at ways the state could better recruit, prepare and retain educators of different backgrounds and understand why schools struggle to build teaching staffs that reflect their student population. 

The work group’s findings, published in a report last year, largely zeroed in on proposals and initiatives that have long been widely recognized as strategies to diversify educators — including increasing teacher pay, providing financial support for student teachers and offering mentoring opportunities for teachers of color.

The BEST Conference, developed by the Public Education & Business Coalition, takes a more active approach in diversity efforts, bringing together teachers of color to learn from one another, weave a network of support and heal.

Jailyn Jenkins, PEBC manager of teacher resident development and co-founder of the BEST Conference, on June 2, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“We know that we love this work, and sometimes it’s hard to express that in schools or as teachers we have to assimilate to different curriculums and we don’t get to bring that joy out,” said Sathya Wandzek, a staff developer at PEBC and the dean of instruction at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver. “And so we just want to remind ourselves, like why do we do this in the first place?”

Jenkins, who trains current and aspiring teachers at PEBC, noted that educators of color often must “be mindful of how we show up in workspaces and what face and what mask we might need to put on in the workplace or as a teacher.”

Stripping away that facade and finding freedom in expression sets that healing in motion, Jenkins said.

“Knowing that we’re all sharing that common ground of STEM, we want to use STEM activities to bond each other, to talk about our culture, to explore ways in which we can bring our culture more intentionally into the classroom,” she added, so that educators of color don’t have to constantly adapt the way they teach or navigate emotional trauma that comes with being in predominantly white spaces.

Jenkins recalls being the first and the only STEM educator of color during her teaching career, an experience that she said can be “isolating” without support in place.

“When you notice inequities and you speak up, there may be a target on your back in those types of situations,” she said.

Jenkins and Wandzek, co-founders of the BEST Conference, are narrowing their focus on teachers of color in STEM disciplines to help educators across grade levels embrace science, technology, engineering and mathematics and understand how core those subjects are to daily life.

Sathya Wandzek, staff developer at the Public Education & Business Coalition, on June 2, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“There seems to be a stigma around STEM, and elementary teachers may not have the same high sense of efficacy in STEM as like a chemistry teacher would,” Jenkins said. “And so we’re trying to dispel that stigma and misconception essentially around STEM identity because everybody’s teaching STEM.”

When figuring out how to treat a cut, for instance, or what vitamins to take when sick or how much tax is owed for a purchase, STEM knowledge becomes critical, she said.

The conference — which will broaden into an ongoing initiative with monthly meetings for STEM educators to gather virtually and check in about policy work, STEM curriculum and making STEM education more inclusive — will have one day focused on creating a sense of belonging and becoming more aware how people of color are marginalized in a system of educational inequities. The second day will immerse teachers in the lighter side of STEM and remind them of the underlying joy they can find while instructing students as they either visit the Denver Zoo to work behind the exhibits with animals or explore floors typically off limits to the public at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Classrooms desperately need a sense of that joy, Wandzek said.

“We have this innate curiosity in us, and honestly schools are squishing it out of us,” she said. “Like we’re squeezing the STEM out of our kids by the curriculum and the kind of association that we’ve had through schools.

“Kids need to be more curious. They need to be asking questions, and our kids are not asking enough questions and finding that joy, and teachers are almost scared of it, not realizing that they have it in them and that it’s part of them.”

There’s also a cultural component to STEM that can help kids more deeply connect with their lessons, added Wandzek, who is Native American.

Sathya Wandzek, staff developer at the Public Education & Business Coalition, creates paintings and jewelry from her residence in Brighton on June 2, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

For instance, in Native Lakota, circles are mathematical structures with significant meaning that show up in cultural components like medicine wheels and tepees. Additionally, braids in Native American culture and Black culture incorporate math and science. Jenkins cited work by professor and author Christopher Emdin, who writes that braids, such as cornrows, involve mathematical patterns that help students of color see how STEM directly touches their lives. 

“There’s perspectives that sometimes we don’t see in our curriculum,” Wandzek said, “that our own personal experiences can help and support.”

The conference is open to teachers across the country. Admission is $250, and scholarships are available here