Brown School Summer Partnership Builds Black Girls’ STEM Skills, Confidence

Community Engagement; Faculty; Students

African American high school girls engage in advanced STEM research at Washington University

Study after study shows that women, especially African-American women, are underrepresented in STEM jobs. Sheretta Butler-Barnes, a professor at the Brown School, wants to change those statistics.

For six years, Butler-Barnes has partnered with the Girls Inc. Eureka! Program and WashU’s Institute for School Partnership, to lead a six-week summer intensive that engages Black high school girls in STEM research. After a COVID-19 hiatus, the program returned this summer to Washington University’s Danforth Campus with the addition of co-instructor Seanna Leath, assistant professor of psychological & brain sciences in Arts & Sciences.

In a ground-floor classroom on a sunny mid-June day, about 20 African American high school girls are learning how to design and build a survey. Their task is to create 20 thought-provoking questions. And no watered-down curriculum for these students, either. The coursework is advanced. 

“I am teaching them the same concepts I teach to my doctoral students,” Butler-Barnes explained. “They’re learning both quantitative and qualitative research methods. We’re teaching them critical thinking about data, data measurement and design, and mixed methods research design. Yes, all of this for high school students!” 

Program participants come from various schools in the St. Louis region, including Ritenour High School, Incarnate Word Academy, Hazelwood, Webster Groves High School, and Cardinal Ritter College Prep.

What sets this program apart is its unique approach, combining qualitative and quantitative research methods with a focus on the experiences of young Black women and girls. While Butler-Barnes focuses on the quantitative part, Leath oversees the qualitative aspect. She guides the students in developing questions and conducting interviews with each other. Survey topics encompassed a wide range of subjects, including narcissism and social media, the Black superwoman schema, mental health, and self-esteem.

“Help each other with questions. How does the question sound? Does it make sense? What survey scale are you using? Butler-Barnes said to the group, adding “It’s all about teamwork.”

Beyond cultivating an interest in STEM, the program aims to foster critical thinking skills. “I want them to read numbers, to know what they mean, to see what populations are included and which ones are not,” Butler-Barnes emphasized.

The students agreed the program was challenging but extremely rewarding. Kaleigh Morgan, a 10th grader at Cardinal Ritter expressed her enthusiasm, saying, “I’ve learned so many new words and so many new things. My brain is just flooded with knowledge.” 

Dominique Griffin, also a sophomore at Cardinal Ritter, highlighted the inspiring presence of Butler-Barnes and Leath. “You don’t really see a lot of African American women professors; it’s inspiring,” she said. 

Several of the girls expressed a strong interest in pursuing STEM careers, sharing aspirations of becoming a dermatologist, psychologist, pediatric neurosurgeon, and nurse anesthetist.

It’s the last week in June, and on this day, Isabel Smith, a Girls Inc. Eureka! facilitator, who herself participated in the program with Butler-Barnes five years ago, is leading a discussion on college readiness.

Isabel Smith (left) helps a student with her resume.

“Today, we are going to talk about resume building. Do you know what a resume is?” she asks the group, as she shares her own resume on the projector. 

Yes, answer the girls. 

A graduate of Brentwood High School, Girls Inc. National Ambassador and a current junior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Smith’s personal experience attests to the Girls Inc. program’s positive impact. She credits it with setting her on a successful career path. Majoring in agricultural and environmental systems with a focus on sustainable land and food systems, she aspires to work for NASA. 

 “I want to grow food in space,” she said of her post-university plans. Smith is hopeful the girls will be similarly influenced to pursue STEM careers. 

In addition to the STEM research, the program included field trips to various locations on campus, including the Kemper Art Museum. The program culminated with a Black women in STEAM poster presentation.

STEAM Poster presentation.
Cheryl Jones of Girls Inc.  
STEAM Poster presentation.

Girls Inc. of St. Louis President and CEO Cheryl Jones is appreciative of the ongoing support from WashU and its faculty members in equipping these young women with the skills and knowledge to thrive academically and personally.

“I am forever grateful to Dr. Barnes and Dr. Leath for encouraging and supporting the next generation of leaders to understand the importance of the areas of quantitative and qualitative research,” she said.

Jones appreciates the commitment from WashU and other local institutions of learning in supporting and encouraging the next generation of leaders. She is looking forward to seeing the partnership continue to grow in the years to come.