Arts & Culture

This STEM program for minority kids works toward ‘no more hidden figures’

Documentary filmmaker André Robert Lee will give a talk and lead a panel discussion at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ “The Future of STEM: Back-to-School Minority Opportunity Fair.”
Documentary filmmaker André Robert Lee will give a talk and lead a panel discussion at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ “The Future of STEM: Back-to-School Minority Opportunity Fair.”

Veronique Moses’ mom finally thinks she knows what her daughter does for a living.

At least that’s the joke Moses told a group of IBM retirees when she led a recent tour of IBM Watson Health at RDU. Her mother, whose background is in education, is no intellectual slouch – it’s just that Moses is at the top of a specialized field, working with rarefied tech on the very cutting edge.

Moses has played many roles in her 20 years with IBM, including contributing to the early stages of e-commerce and cloud technology. Since 2014, though, she has been the Program Director for IBM Watson Health Consulting Services.

Watson, IBM’s AI, famously defeated two human “Jeopardy” champions in 2011. Today, Watson’s many applications include medical ones, like analyzing data for cancer research.

“This is probably the most humanized role I’ve had,” says Moses, who works with Watson’s oncology pillar. “I’ve had a lot of fun roles in IBM, but this is the one where people get emotional.”

Saturday, Moses joins a panel of STEM professionals at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ “The Future of STEM: Back-to-School Minority Opportunity Fair,” which is tied to its “RACE: Are We So Different?” exhibit. Documentary filmmaker André Robert Lee gives a talk as well, then leads the panel discussion. The idea is to give children from minority groups the opportunity to see people like themselves in science, tech, engineering or math fields – that’s S, T, E and M.

“When you think about mathematicians scientists, biochemists, elite doctors, do you think of people of color?” Lee asks. He isn’t being rhetorical. He’s making a point by interviewing the interviewer. “That’s a real question for you,” he says.

Lee contends that most do not think of people of color when they imagine elite doctors and scientists, and he says it’s likely the same for children in minority groups. When they picture someone in a STEM field, they don’t necessarily imagine someone who looks like them.

“I am really passionate about students realizing that they are no different from any other child,” Moses says. “I never thought that I was ‘less than.’ You are the same as any other child walking on this universe, and the only thing you have to do is own it and know it and realize that it’s already there. It’s just for you to capture it and carry it on.”

Spurring conversations

Growing up in South Carolina, Moses went to predominately black schools through graduation. Then, during her undergraduate years at Winthrop University and graduate years at N.C. State, she found herself a double minority in her computer science major – a black person and a woman. Yet her mom raised her to not feel different, so she didn’t feel different. She did the hard work (and these are hard degrees, she confirms) and landed a career with IBM.

Lee’s grade school years were almost the opposite of Moses’. As he documents in the 2012 film “The Prep School Negro,” Lee was the only black person at his private school. With his production company Many Things Management, Lee makes films with names like “I’m Not Racist, Am I?” that are designed to spur community conversations.

“Young people with their interest in STEM often feel like ‘other.’ These aren’t typical careers or paths of study for a lot of people, and really for people of color,” Lee explains while waiting to catch yet another plane. He travels constantly, and has participated in more than 800 workshops related to his films. “My thought is how to have a dialogue and talk about what it means to be ‘other.’ I think it’s kind of cool to be ‘other,’ and you should not shy away from career interests that don’t fit the norm.”

Appropriately, Lee will be the ‘other’ at Saturday’s museum event, he points out. He doesn’t work in a STEM field, though he’ll be moderating a panel of accomplished STEM professionals. “It’s kind of fun to be an outsider,” he muses.

Perception is the barrier

As Moses sees it, perception is the main barrier: Math is hard. Science is hard. You have to be a super-nerd who has been coding since the age of 2.

Kids run up against these stereotypes, and maybe they don’t pursue a field that would have been an excellent fit. On top of that, if minority kids have the skill set for a STEM career, but don’t see themselves modeled in those roles, they don’t always pursue them, Lee says. He wants minority children to be strong and pursue what they want anyway. Without people of color in the sciences, he points out, even the space race could have turned out differently.

“How do we move to no more hidden figures?” Lee asks, referring to the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures.” “These women were working hard and aggressive and good, but I never heard that story until the movie came out. It’s crazy,” Lee says. “They helped us get to the moon, for God’s sake! That’s a big deal.”

The Future of STEM: Back-to-School Minority Opportunity Fair

When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday

Where: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 11 W. Jones St., Raleigh

Who: Open to students in grades 5-12

Cost: Free

Info: naturalsciences.org

RACE: Are We So Different

When: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday (last entry at 4 p.m., Monday-Sunday)

Where: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 11 W. Jones St., Raleigh

Cost: Free, but tickets are required

Info: naturalsciences.org/exhibits/featured-exhibitions/race

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