Prof. R. Jordan Crouser ’08 Shares Lessons from White House STEM Conference

R. Jordan Crouser '08, visiting assistant professor of statistical and data sciences, was invited to the Oct. 28 White House Conference on Inclusive STEM Education.

A few weeks ago, R. Jordan Crouser ’08 got an email from the White House.

The email invited Crouser, a visiting assistant professor of statistical and data sciences and a MassMutual Faculty Fellow at Smith, to participate in the White House Conference on Inclusive STEM Education for Youth of Color, a gathering that connected researchers, educators, policymakers and community leaders from across the nation with senior White House officials to discuss strategies for increasing access to STEM.

Crouser has been working on this issue in his classroom at Smith through his position as co-chair of the college’s Science Center Committee on Diversity and through a collaboration with Kimberly Scott ’91, director of the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology at Arizona State University (ASU).

Since last spring, Smith students in Crouser’s Human Computation and Visualization Lab have been collaborating with ASU students to conduct interviews and analyze data for a digital narratives project on women of color in STEM. A video they produced was circulated at the D.C. conference.

Here’s what Crouser had to say about his experience at the White House gathering:


Tell us more about the work that led to your invitation to the White House conference.

“It came through my collaboration with Kimberly Scott, whom I met after I contacted her about being a speaker at Smith. Last spring, she invited some of my students and me to attend the inaugural Women of Color STEM Entrepreneurship Conference at ASU. While there, we collaborated on conducting video interviews with speakers at the conference. Over the summer, students in my lab performed data analysis on those interviews to explore the different ways people talked about issues such as mentoring. We looked at the frequency of words used on those topics and produced word clouds to highlight differences. It was a wonderful opportunity to apply a data-driven approach to these issues and a great example of how we can collaborate across distances and disciplines.”


What stood out most for you about the White House conference?

“What was most meaningful to me was the experience of just listening. As an out transgender faculty member, it’s frustrating when you don’t see anyone like you or hear from anyone like you most of the time. At the conference, I was one of a handful of white men in a room of more than 100 people. That was a powerful reminder about my own privilege and the importance of consistently checking that privilege as an ally.”


Did you hear about new strategies for attracting students of color to STEM studies?

“I think about this in terms of pipelines. In the past, I worked for a big national lab and we would always talk about the need to diversify our applicant pool. But to do that you have to reach out much further. Some of the work involves making it a priority for us, as professors, engineers and scientists, to go and talk to elementary school students and let them see and hear from us. At the White House conference, I met a lot of people from community colleges—another important pipeline for students in STEM. When we assume there is a place that’s not worth looking for potential talent, we risk overlooking the next generation of innovators.”


What about new classroom strategies?

“One thing I heard over and over again was how important design thinking and hands-on teaching strategies are early on. When students have the chance to build something or tinker, you get rid of some of the discrepancies in our attitudes about who can learn in the classroom. When I was at Smith, my favorite classes were the ones that allowed me to build. One of the other challenges we have as an elite school is to convince students that failure is part of the scientific process. We have to think of new ways to reward constructive failure and rethink evaluation methods that reinforce the idea that there is only one right way to learn.”


Did you get to meet President Obama when you were in Washington, D.C.?

“He wasn’t at the conference, but there were others there—Valerie Jarrett [senior advisor to the president] was incredible. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut, gave the keynote address. We also heard from Karl Reid, the executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, who was our Smith Commencement speaker last year. I was also surprised by how many small business owners attended.”


What are some next steps for you?

“I like to think about the platforms I have to address these challenges, including the time I spend in the classroom. As faculty, we often don’t realize how much power there is in designing a syllabus. I would love to get some of the people I met at the conference to speak to my students about their work as scientists. Handing over the mic is one way professors can demonstrate that this is someone whose voice matters.”