AAAS Member Sibrina Collins, Ph.D., is an inorganic chemist who is also a writer, editor, and STEM administrator. Her disparate talents, experience, and multiple skill sets are reflected in her bio — she’s an educator, mentor, author of peer-reviewed articles in significant scientific journals, documentary film executive producer, and was the Director of Education at a prominent African American history museum. One could easily mistake her resume for that of several experts rather than one scientist-storyteller whose work champions inclusivity and inspires innovation.
Collins is currently the founding Executive Director of the Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University. The center serves as the clearinghouse of all the STEM initiatives on campus. It also provides middle and high school students hands-on learning opportunities using state-of-the-art equipment in modern labs.
She is also a new editor of The Disruptor Blog, part of AAAS’ Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative which aims to transform undergraduate STEM education by sharing evidence-based practices for improving teaching, learning and equity. As an editor, Collins will guide a series of blog posts dedicated to how communities play an important role in supporting faculty and administrators to drive systemic change in undergraduate STEM education. Collins, who is working on her first blog post, says, “I hope to continue adding to the national conversation about including everyone in the STEM ecosystem and what that means.”
Collins points out that, for her, the path to improving STEM education and fostering diversity is based in storytelling, but notes that there are many ways to achieve this goal. Many STEM activities and engagement, for instance, don’t take place in the classroom, but rather in spaces such as museums and libraries.
“I’m interested in learning from the community what ideas they have for including everyone,” Collins says.
For her part, Collins has come up with numerous engaging ways to spark students’ interest in science and to get people thinking about the many scientific contributions made by women and people of color throughout history. She hopes this knowledge can inspire future generations of scientists. One example of her ingenuity is how she harnesses the power of cultural phenomena, like the movie Black Panther, to capture students’ attention.
“Because I can’t shut off my chemistry brain, as I was watching this film it occurred to me that this fictional African nation was thriving on the production and use of a metal called Vibranium,” Collins says. “I said to myself, if this element were real, where would it be on the periodic table?”
That night, she contacted a colleague and asked her to consider including this as a bonus question in her next general chemistry exam. “We found out immediately who the Marvel comics fans were in the department."
Afterwards, this question was regularly incorporated in numerous classrooms. Students have even split into teams to make posters of the periodic table and present their ideas about where this fictional element should be. “They end up having so much fun with this activity that they don’t realize they’re actually learning about one of the most important tools in the history of chemistry,” notes Collins.
Collins’ creativity also inspired others like former student Marie Ann Torres-Lopez, who produced and directed a documentary about the accomplishments of three women scientists of color: Alice Augusta Ball, a chemist who developed a treatment for leprosy in the early 20th century; Jewel Plummer Cobb, Ph.D., a biologist and cancer research pioneer who later became president of a research university; and Evelyn Boyd Granville, Ph.D., a mathematician who completed calculations for NASA missions. The 30-minute film, called “Women Untold,” was based upon articles written by Collins.
“I have all these articles about unknown scientists that you don’t hear about… and I asked her if she could use some of my published articles to create a documentary,” says Collins. “It was just beautifully done; because of that experience, I want to do more documentaries and tell these stories.”
This desire to share the untold stories of unsung scientists harkens back to Collins’ early academic career.
“As an undergraduate, looking at chemistry textbooks, I didn’t see images of people that looked like me, or even in any discussions about contributions from women or people of color in STEM,” recalls Collins. “And so, I vowed to change that if I ever became a professor.”
Today, the documentary is shown in various Lawrence Tech classrooms and used as a tool in professional development workshops for K-12 teachers.
“I never would have imagined that I could use my education to do so many different things in my career,” she says. “I want to get young people to think outside the box with their career options… And I think as educators, when we’re recruiting students for our programs, we really need to say to them, ‘If you earn a degree in this particular discipline, this is how you can improve your community.’” That, perhaps, is the endgame — to show today’s young future scientists how they can use what they learn to think about solutions for a better tomorrow.
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