Brian Tracey on Changing the Paradigm for Young Minority Students

Brian Tracey is a SMEA alumnus who graduated last year. He is the program coordinator for Seattle MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement), an organization that provides hands-on STEM education to underrepresented or economically disadvantaged K-12 students in the area.

Brian wrote his thesis on the experience of underrepresented minorities at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs (SMEA) and was the head of the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) committees of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and of the College of the Environment during his time at UW. He was also a member of the inaugural Husky 100.

For Part One of my interview with Brian, I spoke to him in detail about the work he does for Seattle MESA, how that work was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the messages he strives to instill in his students. Brian’s responses have been edited for length and clarity and are presented below as a continuous story.

March 2, 2019 – Brian (right) brainstorms with a couple of Seattle MESA teachers on a hands-on student activity at a teacher training. (Photo credit: Brian Tracey)

 

I am a high school coordinator, so I work directly with students. For Seattle MESA our goal really is to close the achievement gap between underrepresented non-white students and their white and Asian counterparts. We do that through focusing on STEM because STEM is the now; it’s no longer the future. It may have been the future some years ago, but now it’s the now. That’s where the money is career-wise. The reason why we focus on STEM skills is partly because it’s useful skills to have, but ultimately the goal is to create a pipeline for these students that leads them to these great careers.

We have students starting off in kindergarten because the data is out there: the younger you get children started in STEM, the more likely they are to be successful and to pursue that as a career option. Ultimately, the goal is to end cycles of poverty within marginalized communities, so we focus on non-white students. That’s what the big picture goal is. That’s the forest.

As for the trees? Well, we focus on hands-on STEM activities, and one of the things that separates us from similar organizations is that we really emphasize science “in real time.” For instance, you’ve probably sat in the SMEA building in some lecture where Dave Fluharty is pointing at the screen talking about fisheries, and you’re thinking, “Yeah yeah, cool, cool.” But then to experience firsthand the knowledge he’s giving you, maybe you’ll need to take Patrick Christie’s class and go out into the field. That way the connection to the material is deeper and stronger and you’ll realize, “Oh, this is what Dave was talking about.”

So that’s what we do with Seattle MESA: the goal is not just to expose students to different aspects of STEM, but to present STEM to them in such a way that it creates a deeper bond with the material, and that they can actually start to envision themselves as a scientist. If I only say, “Hey, kid! You can be an astronaut!” that’s not the same as saying, “Hey, kid! I’m going to sit you down in this astronaut’s chair, and you’re going to experience a bit of what it’s like to take off and go into space.” Or maybe I’ll say, “I’m going to put you in front of a pot roast and have you try out some surgical procedures on it so you can imagine being a doctor.” It’s a much more visceral approach, and that’s what we focus on doing.

Additionally, our goal is also to get students ready for life after high school. Providing the STEM exposure is cool and ensuring these kids are academically competitive with their white and Asian counterparts is essential. However, the other part of our mission is making sure these students have the soft skills needed to navigate a life and a world that–and let’s be frank about this–is hell bent on destroying them. By soft skills I mean college preparation, writing resumés, learning how to perform well in interviews, and general career readiness. It’s particularly my mission to foster these skills because I deal with high school students: they’re at that last stage before they become legal adults.

Asa Mercer International Middle School, Seattle, WA (June 10, 2016) – Brian leads students through an activity focused on bycatch and commercial fisheries. (Photo credit: Brian Tracey)

 

Right now, because of COVID-19, more than 90% of what I do for Seattle MESA is online. I’ll meet the students to drop off materials. Any chance I get to see the students I’ll take it, while taking all the necessary precautions, of course. But most of what I do is work with teachers who have designated days and times that are for MESA time where I can “drop in” online and do my thing.

In the spring when everything shut down, everyone was busy adjusting, and so most teachers didn’t even have space to talk to me. So I asked myself, “What is MESA at its core?” Well, we’re hands on. I started devising at-home STEM activities because I wasn’t sure when I would be able to get back into schools, but I wanted to have students be able to do STEM activities at home with little to no resources. We use stuff that’s lying around the house: paper, toilet paper tubes, or whatever they have they can use to do simple but fun STEM activities–guerilla STEM, if you will. I’ll also add my personal flair so that it becomes more interesting.

Fortunately, I’m creative and young enough that I can connect to high school students in a way that is conducive to them learning stuff that’s dry. It’s something that’s been natural to me, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to hone that skill, so it’s not just about using some innate ability. It also involves the hard work I’ve put in, as well as the knowledge and skills that I’ve learned and can utilize.

I have my reservations about Seattle Public Schools, but I have to give credit where credit is due: they recognized quickly that online access would be an issue for many students during the pandemic, and so in the spring they gave laptops to students who needed it. The school system also worked with internet providers so that students received wireless hotspots as needed. I volunteered with Seattle Public Schools to be a sort of virtual front line worker to help any family who got new laptops with any of their troubleshooting needs. Basically I was on a hotline, like Drake.

For the fall semester, Seattle Public Schools decided that every student would get a laptop regardless of need. So access wasn’t so much of an issue as all the troubleshooting issues students were having with their new hardware. You might say that I was part of an “elite unit” that helped to troubleshoot these issues, but I was only able to do that because the school system had put together a pretty good resource guide for volunteers like myself. I believe that access for my students is less of an issue now than it was in the springtime.

November 3, 2017 – Brian (center, foreground) accompanied MESA students from Showalter Middle School, in the Tukwila School District, on a wetland restoration field trip. (Photo credit: Brian Tracey)

 

I’ve been with MESA seven years: I was the lead volunteer the first two years, and I’ve been employed the last five years. The first thing I did when I got employed was to start changing the paradigm. When I was growing up, the narrative was: go to school, get good grades, get a good job, and live out the American Dream. I did all that myself until I graduated college. After college, I went right into the workforce, before eventually going to grad school. Along that journey, I realized that while what I was doing was cool, you didn’t actually have to follow that path.

Besides, the way that path is set up, it’s not meant for non-white students. It’s meant for students who can go to school and, in some cases, have their parents bribe their way into college. After that person leaves college, no matter what they did in school they’ll have a job waiting for them because their parents know someone high up in some corporation, or they have a buddy who’s the owner of some business.

So I started telling my students, “Look, whatever you choose to do after high school is fine. Success is how you define it. However, I’m going to give you this set of skills so that no matter what you choose to do, you’re going to be able to live the life that you imagined or something close to it.” That may mean going to a four-year institution. That may mean going to community college. That may mean going to a trade school to acquire a skill set and use it. STEM doesn’t just mean scientist or astronaut; you can be a mechanic too. That’s STEM, right? You can be an engineer on a ship. Lead and assistant engineers are doing STEM-related work, and they make great money. However, I also try to convey the message that their goal should not just be to get a high-paying career or job, but to do that and then give back to the community.

I want to rewrite the narrative. When I’m working with high schools, I work with teachers, parents, and administrators, to bring hands-on STEM into the classroom, so that it can serve as a gateway for my students to reimagine or rewrite their own narratives. That’s my goal, to change the paradigm.

Editor’s notes:

According to the National Science Foundation’s Science & Engineering Indicators 2018 report, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people make up only 11% of the science and engineering workforce despite comprising 27% of the United States’ population. The same report reveals a clear link between racial and economic inequities: the science and engineering workforce earns a higher median salary and is less likely to experience unemployment than those who are not part of that workforce.

To contribute to STEM education for non-white students, support the Seattle MESA Fund, the STEM Paths Innovation Network, or local groups in your area doing similar work.

Come back in January for Part Two of this interview, where Brian will talk about his experience at SMEA, how that set him up for the work he does for Seattle MESA, and his thoughts on the efficacy of non-profits and academic institutions in meeting the needs of Black and other non-white communities that are underrepresented.