Professor Awarded $1 Million National Science Foundation Grant for Pioneering Research Supporting Gifted Black Girls

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series on Dr. Anderson

Top Research Agency Funds UNC Charlotte Professor

Brittany Anderson, assistant professor of Urban Education in the Cato College of Education, was awarded a $1,062,034 grant from the National Science Foundation for her pioneering research on gifted Black girls (GBGs) with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) talent in elementary schools across the country.

“This award reinforces what we already know about the faculty and staff at UNC Charlotte—that they are pioneers and leaders in their fields,” said Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Rick Tankersley. “The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation is among the most prestigious awards a faculty member can receive. We are thrilled that NSF has recognized Dr. Anderson as a role model for research and education.”

Research Forwards Diversity and Equity

Anderson’s research focuses on clearing pathways for talent identification and development of minoritized youth, reflecting a commitment to understanding social issues, emphasizing practical and innovative solutions, and prioritizing the interests, expertise and historical legacies of those who experience injustice.

Anderson is one of the first scholars whose research places the needs, talents, aspirations, and unique intersectional experiences of GBGs front and center, and it has the potential to transform elementary education nationwide.

The project is called CAREER: Critical and Culturally Relevant Experiential Learning: Fostering Early STEM Exploration with Gifted and High-Ability Black Girls and their Elementary Teachers.

Decades of data reveal underrepresentation of Black students in gifted education programs. The U.S. Department of Education found that though Black and Latinx students represent 42% of the student enrollment for schools where gifted programming is offered, they account for only 28% of the programs’ enrollment. 

The identification and referral process for gifted programming and services varies, but Anderson's research found it is often biased and subjective.

“The consequence of this is that Black girls are historically underidentified for gifted services and programming, but overidentified in terms of disparate discipline,” Anderson explained.

Nickesha excelled in math, but she felt her talent and potential were overlooked.

It was in middle school, where I think my gifted identity started unfolding…school became more of a place where I could compete, whereas in Kindergarten through five, I was just kind of existing. I was just doing what I could do, which came very easily, but there wasn't a whole lot of effort, a lot of pushing. But by the time I got to middle school, I wanted to excel. —Nickesha

Reimagining Elementary Education

The project relies on a university-school-community partnership model that incorporates the voices of the girls, their families, teachers and community stakeholders in the development of STEM teaching.

Anderson designed a two-part model of elementary education that she is introducing into Druid Hills Academy, a PK-8 public school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, as part of a five-year-long research effort.

The school is Title I, meaning that at least 40% of the students enrolled are eligible for free or reduced lunch costs. Druid Hills Academy serves majority Black and Latinx students, with 78% of the campus qualifying for free/reduced lunch.

The first program, See Me In STEM (SMIS), fosters out-of-school education that will focus on STEM learning and development. Research reveals that almost all science learning (95%) happens outside of formal classrooms, and the emphasis on standardized testing in schools has narrowed the scope.

The sessions explore:

●  Outdoor exploration, environmental education bridged with social-emotional learning

●  Engineering and technology design challenges with robotics, coding and gaming

●  Understanding everyday science using problem-based learning

●  Community-based mathematical experiences using problem-based learning

● Field trips to Discovery Museum, Johnson C. Smith science, engineering, and computer science labs, Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center

The second part, Teachers as Talent Catalysts (TATC), addresses the professional development of teachers and administrators. It aims to address the cultural misunderstanding between teachers and GBGs.

The goals of the TATC program are:

●  Engaging educators in STEM-related professional development 

●  Talent identification and development of gifted/high-ability Black girls, in addition to analyzing the current practices for talent identification

●  Co-constructing with research team, families, and community partners knowledge and teaching practices that are transformative and culturally relevant for the needs, interests and characteristics of gifted, high-ability Black girls

●  Establishing an understanding of the historical legacies and knowledge of Black and Brown communities 

Malcolm B. Butler, Dean of the Cato College of Education, is a science education scholar who has explored issues of equity and diversity in science education in his own research, some of which has also been supported by NSF. Butler said, “Dr. Anderson is an emerging citizen scholar whose NSF-supported endeavors will interrogate and address issues of access and opportunity for gifted Black girls. Her consequential work will continue to make our college, university, and community better. We are fortunate to have a scholar of Dr. Anderson’s caliber in the Cato College of Education.”

Charting a Course for Black Girls' Success at School

Ashley Spann, a teacher working with Anderson at Druid Hills, hopes it will be a continuous project for all students. “I have seen marked improvements in the girls both personally and in the classroom,” she said.  “Dr. Anderson’s work not only builds their academic potential but their overall confidence and resilience, and, equally as important, it gives our teachers insight into how to approach teaching through understanding different aspects of diversity and lived experience.”

Anderson said, “If a commitment to and investment in them are made, then the next generation of Black female STEM scholars will be better prepared, more competitive and a larger group overall.”

Note of Acknowledgement: Dr. Anderson and UNC Charlotte would like to acknowledge the support and efforts of Carla Mathis, principal at Druid Hills, as well as teachers Keith Burgess, Ashley Spann, and Mildred Coley.