A conversation with Alfred Mays & Dr. Sam Houston
Welcome to FOCUS In Sound, the podcast series from the FOCUS newsletter published by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. I’m your host, science writer Ernie Hood.
This edition of FOCUS In Sound is a family affair, as we connect with two of the most prominent members of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund family, gentlemen who are primary practitioners of the Fund’s profound commitment to supporting science education. I will mercilessly pick their brains to gather their thoughts about the Fund’s activities and the larger importance of science education in our society.
Alfred Mays is a senior program officer at the Fund, and serves as the Director and Chief Strategist for Diversity and STEM Education. He began his tenure at the Fund in 2015, and is responsible for strategic program development and diversity in science. He directs a portfolio of competitive and strategic grants and serves on a number of nonprofit educational and civic boards. Alfred, thanks for joining us on Focus in Sound…
Thank you, Ernie.
Dr. Samuel Houston, Jr., is President and Chief Executive Officer of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center, better known as the SMT Center. He has held that position since 2003. The Center is housed at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and is largely supported by the Fund. It is dedicated to the advancement of science, mathematics, and technology in the schools of North Carolina and around the nation. Sam has had a long and distinguished career in science education. Beyond his many awards, he now has an award named after him! Sam, welcome to Focus in Sound…
It’s always a privilege to work with you, Ernie.
Alfred, let me start with you. Would you give us a broad overview of the Fund’s science education programs?
So Ernie I’ll begin by perhaps going down two separate paths. Within science education, we have formal, competitive grants, and we also have strategic and ad hoc initiatives. And down the first path of our competitive awards, we have three key awards that I’d like to note. One would be our Student STEM Enrichment Program, and that’s our long-standing out-of-school-time, afterschool support programming for non-profit organizations across the state of North Carolina to provide student STEM enrichment. We refer to it as SSEP. The second of the three competitive awards would be our CASMT award, our Career Award for Science, Mathematics Teachers, and we’re actually going to update that award to reflect the reference to STEM, so it will become the Career Award for STEM Teachers. And we’ve been running that award for quite some time now, and have about 30 awards have been made in total, five awards every other year. The third award would be our PRISM Award, and that’s our Promoting Innovation in Science and Math, and that particular award is dedicated to providing teachers with equipment, supplies, and materials related to STEM instruction, and there’s also a stipend available for professional development for the teachers as it relates to the equipment, materials, and supplies. So those are three key awards within the competitive space.
Within the strategic and ad hoc space, we have a cadre and a broad number of awards. Some are pretty significant and proof of concepts, or pilots. Some are building capacity. Some are actually starting new initiatives, being innovative and creative around new initiatives. And some are just based on partnerships and leveraging existing resources or investments that we’ve made in STEM across the state. And some are in partnership with organizations such as you’ll hear more from Sam and working with the SMT Center and how they serve as an aggregator and a central resource for STEM programming or initiatives. And then there’s a broad range of other organizations we work with across K-12, undergrad, grad, postdoc, early career, which is true across K-20 and beyond.
So those are the primary areas within science ed. We do branch out beyond that, depending on the initiatives, and we do have certain priorities that we might introduce depending on strategic planning and training mapping.
Thank you for that summary. What would you say has been the impact of the Fund’s programs through the years?
I think the biggest impact has been where we’ve been able to sustain efforts that have been successful and have had broad impact, particularly with particular populations—underserved, underrepresented areas that we’ve targeted in our formal programming. But also in terms of being creative and innovative, as I mentioned prior, and to the extent that we might adopt, implement, and perhaps look for options of scale of those successful models.
Do you think science education in North Carolina is improving and expanding?
I think it is improving and it is expanding. I think the level of access and opportunity is growing through the broader outreach and engagement. We have an inventory of investments that have been made in determining how we could actually go back into those investments and determine how we might redistribute or provide greater access to those resources, [which] certainly provides opportunities for expanding.
How would you say the Fund’s programs have affected the situation?
So we know that there are high-resource organizations and we know there are low-resource organizations. We know that many organizations do not have the capacity to stand up and implement and actually evaluate or assess. So I know the Fund has had a tremendous impact in being able to provide resources to organizations that have low capacity, and we’re actually piloting and experimenting with different designs that might leverage our prior investments on our more formal models. I would say also that partnerships and collaboration are key. So for organizations that we not only invest in, but which organizations are actually willing to make investments along with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in joint opportunities has been key. So I think Burroughs Wellcome does a great job of that. We have significant formal networks in place. We have lesser formal networks in place, where we seek to bring those communities into the more formal structures, whereby we can leverage imbalance where there might be strengths in one area, we can leverage that and where there might be weaknesses in one area we might be able to create opportunities for other organizations to provide assistance and support and guidance to some of our lower-resource organizations.
Alfred, thank you for that great information.
Sam, your turn. Tell us a bit about the SMT Center’s programs and activities related to science education.
Ernie, it was back in 2002 that the Burroughs Wellcome Fund started looking carefully at what was happening in science and mathematics originally in North Carolina, and found that a lot of things were happening, but there didn’t seem to be a point of synergy. So the initial vision of creating the SMT Center was to play that role, to possibly be a convener, one that connected dots, created collaborations and even sometimes could even be a bit disruptive, and that our mission in simple fashion is to give young people the skills and knowledge that they’re going to need to function in a very technical environment, and to become leaders in an ever-changing, a rapidly changing future. We are, what should I say, an outgrowth of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and somewhat an outreach arm. We are not into as much the grant-making side as Alfred is. We do make grants, but they’re usually grants that help us carry out a function of some type. We work in leadership. We work with the North Carolina Association of School Administrators in a very deep way. Two-fold—one, to get to know them, because they’re ever-changing, and secondly to try to influence their thinking about STEM. We weren’t called the STEM Center, we’re the SMT Center, because when we started, STEM was not the buzzword. That came along. We think of STEM as Strategies That Engage Minds, rather than just the silo of disciplines. So if you think about Strategies That Engage Minds, that kind of opens the door for us to work across disciplines. We’re as much about literacy in math as we are about science, engineering, technology, and math.
I see us as an action arm, trying to get people to do the right things, support them when they need support, partner with Alfred in the work that he does to prepare an open door for us to walk in and say, “Can we help you with your project, your goals, your desired outcomes?” We play in a lot of different arenas as such, and try to make sure that we bring grants to North Carolina as much as we give grants. We have a strong partnership with the Smithsonian Science Education Center. We have a partnership with the collaborative of states called STEMx. And I could go on, because it’s both what Alfred does and what we do, we touch a lot of points in a lot of different arenas.
Have you seen an evolution in science education in your time, particularly since the advent of the STEM era?
I’ve seen an evolution in the recognition that this STEM thing is going to be important to our society, to the workforce, and generally to the future. We know we’re becoming an even more and more highly technical environment that relies on the quick transfer of information and the use of information in many and different ways. The evolution that you speak of is a bit slow, in that to really implement concepts of STEM, you have thing about teaching and learning in a whole different way. Our schools need to become something more than just a place that kids learn facts and can pass tests. They have to be users of information. So for that to happen, teachers have to change a bit. And to your answer, yes, I have seen an evolution. More so in some pockets than in others. We haven’t penetrated the full gamut of education with the needs to provide inquiry in the classroom, where kids are expected to become independent thinkers and act thoughtfully rather than thoughtlessly, and kind of know what to do when they’re not sure what to do. So there’s some work to be done.
Are you seeing more interest in science among young North Carolinians these days?
I think so. I can’t point to absolute evidence, but when I look at all the things that are happening in our science competitions, more and more kids are getting involved with science and engineering fair, with Science Olympiad, with all of the, with the First Robotics, there are things happening. I’m afraid that sometimes they are happening in our more affluent areas and we aren’t touching as deeply as we should in those areas where young people and schools and communities need more help. And that’s one of our focuses. It’s one of the major focuses of Alfred’s work, is to look at diversity and equity and inclusion, and in our work with the Smithsonian, they use an “a,” they say “accessibility.” Can you get to the things that you need and provide them for all people? So yeah, we’re getting better, I think we’re better in North Carolina at recognizing what needs to be done to have a comfortable future for the state and for our 1.6 million kids that are in school. I’m positive about what I’m seeing.
How about among teachers? Are STEM programs attracting more educators?
We have one challenge all the time, and that’s trying to find, particularly in the middle grades and high school, math and science teachers. They’re just not out there, and the ones that are majoring in the sciences and in mathematics can find more attractive work than becoming a beginning teacher. It’s a struggle, and the struggle is kind of geographically like you would suppose. In the more rural areas of the state, it’s even more difficult to find math and science teachers. So one, we’ve got to find more. Secondly, we need to make sure that we train teachers to educate young people, not teach young people. And I see a difference. Education gives young people an opportunity to do things on their own, to explore, to become that independent thinker, not a dependent thinker. Teaching someone is giving them facts and expecting them to give it back. So there is a difference. And it’s not only a matter of training, it’s a matter of re-training, providing professional development—one of our roles, the professional development. But we’ve got 100,000 teachers. So again, it’s a big task.
I’d like to direct this question to both of you…What would you say are the greatest ongoing needs for science education today, in North Carolina and in general?
ALFRED: I’ll start by underscoring, Sam, one of the points that you made in your response earlier. And that’s related to diversity, equity, and inclusion and accessibility, and even the sense of belonging. There’s a huge deficit and there’s a gap, and it exists primarily because many of our students don’t see themselves in the particular careers or areas that they feel they could be successful in pursuing and have true aspirations around. So I think there is this need to not only have representation and have individuals within the careers for which kids might look up to and have aspirations around to be exposed. I think the other is the sense of access and opportunity. Sometimes access doesn’t mean there’s opportunity, and sometimes opportunity doesn’t mean there’s access. So we have to work hard to create balance. And we know that we have wonderful students with wonderful backgrounds and wonderful experiences, and most of those successes are around traditional environments for which there are supports in place to ensure that of success. But then there is the population of students that do not have those supports in place, and how do we create a community and a network of support around those students, to kind of complement and supplement where those traditional experiences may not be there for them to have the necessary support to be successful. What those ongoing needs are, I think that’s pretty evident based on what I’ve described. But it’s also evident based on the diversity and the make-up of STEM workforce and STEM labor members. Diversity is just not there. So we definitely need to increase our equity, access, and opportunity, and we’re doing that through investments, through policy decisions that are being made and how they can be more informed, and there’s greater awareness around those deficits and those gaps. And we also know there’s always been uneven starts. So paying particular attention to just achievement gaps is not enough. We have to make sure we look further back to ensure there are even starts, even as far back as early education, so that our students, by the time they’re in third or fourth grade, they have been given somewhat similar opportunities and similar access for which we might see common outcomes based on students’ STEM success.
SAM: I totally and absolutely agree with everything Alfred said. I think the other point in science education is the old cliché, it’s not a spectator sport. To do science, you need materials and resources, and they are not evenly distributed across our state. It’s not a terribly expensive endeavor, if you recognize that science is, again, about literacy and math, and it’s about social studies and history. There are connections there. When I hear people say, “I don’t have time to do science,” or “I can’t afford science,” I can agree with them on one point. If you science as a stand-alone event, it’s expensive and it’s time-consuming. But if you understand that science delivered, science, math and technology, engineering, delivered in the right fashion is multi-disciplinary. It’s about reading, it’s about calculating, it’s about the same math and literacy skills that young people need to pass the English and math tests. But it’s even more attractive because, I have yet to ever see children that didn’t get excited about doing an investigation. They like science. They like manipulatives. They like explosions. The mystique of science can be used to reach all of the other disciplines. And where we see that happening in North Carolina and around the country in general—both Alfred and I do national work also. Where policymakers and teachers understand the power of engagement and what it can do across the curriculum, science is in good health. Where that’s not recognized, it’s a struggle.
Another question for both of you…Do you see the science education programs from the Fund and from the SMT Center as models that can be adopted by other states? Are they replicable across the nation?
SAM: We have a number of programs that, because in the SMT Center, and it’s the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, too, we’re a member of a group called STEMx that has 19 state members, 22 organizations that are part of that STEMx group, which was originated out of the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio. We share tools. One example is our STEM Schools of Distinction process of identification here in North Carolina, where exemplary models can be given that distinction and [be] honored by the state board, and use it as a defining characteristic of their school. It’s a very, very difficult process and it’s not for the weak of heart. You’re going to do a lot of work to get that distinction. We have a number of other states that have copied that. So working through our national relationships, we do influence things that are happening in other states, and we’re proud of that.
ALFRED: I’ll add from the national perspective, similar to Sam’s sharing on STEMx, we also have an organization at the national level referred to as the National STEM Funders Network, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund is a founding member of the group of national funders who have made significant investments in STEM, locally, regionally, state, and nationally. Through that network we actually provide opportunities for collaborative funding and support. We look for models whereby, an example that Sam has referenced, when one particular state or one particular organization has been successful, we choose to replicate it rather than start from scratch. And Sam’s example with the Schools of Distinction is an excellent one. We’ve also sought out opportunities for scale, when opportunities at the national level can actually be adopted more locally or regionally. And a good example of that is the National STEM Ecosystems, for which North Carolina had already networks in place, but not under the official label of Ecosystems. So we’ve actually funded at the national level, but we also support at the state level, and the SMT Center actually serves as that aggregator and coordinator and convener, so that the STEM Ecosystem model actually meets our regional and our local needs, as well as contributing to the national strategy.
There’s also many considerations that come from the national network in terms of how we can do more together than we ever could alone. So we look at opportunities where there might be shared funding or shared design or shared opportunities for adoption. So it’s a give and take. We look in North Carolina, and many states across the nation look to North Carolina for its existing structures around networks and systems, while they are actually seeking to create networks and systems to serve as structures to host ideal situations. Sam can attest to that. We get calls quite often asking for opportunities to pilot or develop proof of concepts, because we already have those collaborative partnerships in place.
SAM: Alfred and I both serve on boards and commissions that are outside of North Carolina, and part of the reason we’re invited to do that is just what he spoke to, we do have some examples that can be shared. When I serve on a board, you can be assured that whatever the discussion of that board might be, somewhere in that discussion STEM and SMT and Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s going to come forward. We not only learn from those opportunities, but in many cases we are the provider of information and thoughts that guide others. I’m not bragging, I’m just saying, it happens. And we’re lucky that we both work in a situation where we can play that role.
So gentlemen, with the change in administration in Washington, what do you see as the outlook for science education nationally?
ALFRED: We are in the midst now of reacting to the build-out of federal resources being available, and to the extent that private dollars might be part of the consideration to even enhance the public-private partnership around additional funding that’s coming through the various federal departments. To the extent that we are now developing a strategy for contributions to be made to the departments to serve as liaisons across STEM communities and STEM organizations. We’re actually looking at a model where fellows might be assigned to represent a specific agency like the Department of Education or the National Science Foundation or the Department of Labor, and to the extent that they are a voice for communities but they are also advocates for the contribution being made from corporate or private philanthropy and how it may be leveraged with the federal dollars that are being made available.
One of the instances you’ll probably hear Sam and I both talk about is that resources can be made available, but it takes grassroots organizations and structures locally to actually adopt and best utilize those resources. And if you don’t have a voice that has that local representation or the grassroots perspective, then making additional resources available where the access and opportunity might still be a constraint will not have a great outcome. So we’re very careful in how we plan and design what the distribution model may look like to ensure that the best investments are made while giving the greatest return. Sam?
SAM: Great point, Alfred. It’s millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars are going to flow to our districts, not only in North Carolina but around the country. Good money being spent on marginal efforts that haven’t proven to have great impact is my fear. More money to do the same things you’ve been doing doesn’t necessarily lead to potential change in outcome. And this pandemic has given us an opportunity to look at doing things in a new and different way, expanding our delivery of education. And I just hope that we won’t take a lot of new money to more quickly get back into what we were already doing, but look at it as an opportunity to change the whole nature of public education for the future. And I hear that language also mixed with, boy I wish we could do what we were doing before. I don’t know which will win out, but careful use of new resources can add value, reckless use of the new resources won’t change much more, just cost more.
With changes currently underway, do you see that changing the niche that your organization will fill when it comes to science education?
SAM: We’re not quite big enough to be as powerful as we would like to be. But our voice is heard, our voice is heard in Washington. We have some influential opportunities there. So I’m positive that things will change. They’ll change more rapidly where leadership sees what they can do with the money to make a difference. Where leadership doesn’t recognize that, they will be slower to change.
ALFRED: I agree with what Sam has shared, and I’ll just add that we’re fortunate to be in a position to seek out where there’s demand for resources, and to seek to provide resources where that demand might be satisfied. But at the same time, we know that there are organizations that organizations that are definitely good stewards to ensure that the investment is utilized and the greatest return is realized. And being a funder puts you in a position of being able to ask certain questions, to the extent that the change has occurred. What are we doing new and different? I think Sam mentioned earlier the re-imagining, the re-thinking, the re-visioning. As a funder, we get to explore what this might look like and what some of the expectations might be, and to assess and evaluate. We know that we’ve had successful efforts in the past. Lack of funding has resulted in some of those efforts not being sustained. But at the same time, being a private grant-maker we have the ability to make investments that don’t necessarily apply to tax dollars being used, but how private philanthropy might be able to make contribution, and then we can prove or learn various lessons from the experience and ask for public dollars to provide support around what we’ve learned from that experience. I consider us fortunate to be able to play in that space, to be able to do the proof of concepts, to explore and be innovative and creative, and then show that it works and have public dollars come into play to sustain those efforts.
SAM: Just one last thing, Ernie. I think North Carolina has a bright future. We have had, but we have opportunities now that leap us into the 21st and 22nd and on centuries, where young people are going to have to solve climate problems, they’re going to have to deal with the diversity, equity and inclusion issues, not only for them but for their children and grandchildren and our future. So North Carolina is on a great path, I believe.
Sam and Alfred, you and your organizations are doing exemplary work supporting and promoting science education in North Carolina. Keep up the outstanding work, and thanks for joining us on Focus in Sound.
ALFRED: Thank you, Ernie.
SAM: It’s always a pleasure to have an opportunity to work with you, Ernie, and your show is a delight. I like to listen to it regularly.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of the FOCUS In Sound podcast. Until next time, this is Ernie Hood. Thanks for listening!
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