Jennifer Stimpson has been an educator for 20 years, but before that she worked as a forensic chemist for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “One of our responsibilities was to volunteer for one hour a week somewhere,” says Stimpson, who recently completed the mid-career program through Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE).
A few years before she’d arrived at the DEA, her office began partnering with a local school, so Stimpson decided that’s where she would volunteer. “I walked into a 4th grade class and told them my name and that I was a scientist. The school didn’t have a science program, so the students had little idea what that actually meant. I realized these kids needed a role model.”
Quickly, Stimpson began spending more days there than in the lab. Her boss called her in for a chat. It wasn’t to scold her, as she thought might happen, but rather to tell her she’d earned The Administrator’s Award, given by the head of the DEA—a Cabinet-level position—and most often reserved for something like the discovery of a new drug or to acknowledge an agent lost in the line of duty.
“I got it for community service,” Stimpson says. “I was so grateful and thankful. That was April of 1999. I started teaching in August of 1999 and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Now, Stimpson has once again been recognized for her commitment to education, this time as an IF/THEN Ambassador through the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The initiative aims to empower 125 women in STEM, with an eye toward inspiring the next generation. It’s meant to show young girls, particularly those in 5th through 9th grades, that the imagery around what it means to be a scientist is changing.
The classic stereotype of the scientist is no longer limited to white men, Stimpson says. “‘Scientist’ can be one of many characteristics of your persona and personality.”
Changing perceptions around what scientists look like has interested Stimpson for decades, so much so that it became the subject of her GSE dissertation. Specifically, she wanted to look at the science identity of Black middle school girls at independent schools, a type of private school governed by a board of directors and privately funded. It was also a setting in which she herself had previously taught, both at the middle- and high school levels.
In such settings, Black girls often represent a minority, usually less than 10% of the student body, says Stimpson. Through interviews with 22 students, she came away with three big findings. One, a lack of cultural representation in science curricula influenced the girls’ disinterest in science. “The students felt that the teachers did not make an intentional effort to share the contributions of female or Black scientists,” she says. “There’d been no recognition or teaching about what it means to be diverse in science. They didn’t see scientists who looked like them.”
Beyond that, Stimpson learned that the students felt they weren’t provided enough opportunity for hands-on engagement with science, nor did they feel the teachers sufficiently presented them with future STEM opportunities or career paths.
Stimpson also interviewed five teachers for this research. “In an independent school, the curriculum is not mandated by the city or district. Teachers have control over what and how to teach,” she says. “What I found is that their curriculum rarely included scientists of color. They had never considered that the role of the scientist was anything other than what they already knew.”
The dissertation work confirmed Stimpson’s suspicions about the holes in education for this group of learners. It also prompted her to apply for the IF/THEN fellowship, as a means to continue learning herself and to help facilitate change.
Due to the pandemic, the yearlong ambassadorship looks slightly different than it would have, though at some point in the future, a 3D printed life-size statue of Stimpson will still go up in NorthPark Center in Dallas. She’ll also continue to engage with young girls, showing them the many ways forward in the STEM fields.
“As a Black woman, I recognize the importance of having role models beyond those considered ‘normal’ in society,” she says. “I’m an African American female chemist. There are three stereotypical definitions about me. The intersectionality of race and gender in science is something that has yet to be embraced fully. I wanted to be that representative to encourage the next generation of women in science.”