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Bringing Science Back Home: Ph.D. Candidate Tiffany Hamm Works to Expand STEM Access

This article originally appeared on Syracuse University School of Education website and is reprinted with permission.

Tiffany HammTiffany Hamm, a fourth-year science education doctoral student, formerly taught earth science in her hometown of Bronx, New York. She chose the School of Education to pursue a Ph.D. because she wanted to do more in the field. Making science accessible is key, she says, both in her pursuit of a doctorate and for the next generation.

“Bringing science back to the community in a tangible way can help students of color and students of underrepresented backgrounds gain interest,” Hamm says. “We need to keep showing different faces in science, keep diversifying the science field, and diversifying images of scientist and their contributions.”

Already holding an A.S. in General Science from the Borough of Manhattan Community College, a B.S. in Marine Sciences from Stony Brook University, and an M.Ed. in Urban Adolescence Education from Long Island University-Brooklyn Campus, Hamm’s research interest is centered on urban science education and finding ways to make STEM more accessible to students attending schools in urban communities.

In June 2020, Hamm shared her vision with TEDxSyracuseUniversity, where she gave a talk on Urban Narratives in Science Education. The School of Education caught up with Hamm to learn her story and the steps she is taking as an educator to help students aspire to become scientist.

What drew you to science education and to pursue a Ph.D. in this field?

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to study marine biology. Growing up, I was known as one of the smart kids, but I was also a little rebel because I was never in class. When I did go, I would easily pass my tests because I knew the material intuitively.

The institution didn’t feel welcoming to me, which was my battle as a student. I understood I had the intellect. It just wasn’t environmentally friendly for me. After high school, I first attended community college, transferred to a state university and then did my bachelor’s in marine sciences.

I moved back to New York City and wondered what to do with my degree. I worked at the aquarium for a few months. Then, by chance, I got an interview to be a secretary at a school. In reviewing my resume, the principal asked, ‘With all this science, why do you want to be my secretary?’ I just needed a job. She said, ‘I’d rather you were my science teacher.’

Once I got into teaching, life came full circle. It felt like an opportunity to bring science back home. Students gravitated to me because I could connect with them, and we were from the same hometown. I taught for a few years, but after a while I wanted to do more in the field.

What drew you to Syracuse University and made it a good fit?

The high school I worked for did college tours and I was asked to accompany one. We visited Syracuse. At that time, I was ready to do more and was researching different programs that catered to science education.

Remembering Syracuse, I checked to see if it offered a program. I contacted Dr. Sharon Dotger, and we had a really good phone conversation. She invited me to visit the school and connected me with other students to get their perspective. When it came to my entire process, I felt like Syracuse was more welcoming. I had phone conversations with other chairs, but no one else invited me to campus or had me meet other students.

What does it mean to be a Holmes Scholar?

In academia, I always felt like I had to pretend to be somebody in order to succeed. If I didn’t fit the mold, behaviorally, then I wasn’t going to be successful. I didn’t know what it would mean to be a Holmes Scholar. It was very refreshing because it caters to underrepresented groups of educators and teacher educators.

When I got to the first conference and saw everyone in the room I saw people who look like me. There was a lot of representation. And it was representation not only in the sense of people of color in academia but also women of color who like to have fun and be real yet who are still educated and professional.

Being able to see these women navigate those waters was inspiring—a moment where I felt like I belong here and there’s space for me here. When I’m with Holmes Scholars, I feel like I’m with family and that I have personal agency, as well as the confidence and the support to truly be me.

What are some of your best memories at the University?

Tiffany Hamm presenting as a Holmes Scholar at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Annual Meeting in March 2022.

Tiffany Hamm presenting as a Holmes Scholar at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Annual Meeting in March 2022.

I’ve improved my public speaking here with a TED talk and presented with the Future Professoriate Program. I also did a study abroad in Kenya. When we talk about countries in Africa, we always talk about Africa and how it’s one Africa. But that’s stereotypical. Seeing the different cultures and how different people live was eye opening. I’m glad I had a firsthand perspective and opportunity to go visit.

One high school I visited had its own working garden. The lunch that they ate every day was prepared by the school chefs and picked from the garden. I was impressed to see how sustainable it was and it made me wonder why can’t we have that here.

How can Black women and those from underrepresented groups be recruited, mentored and retained in STEM fields?

I think it all boils down to making the sciences accessible and tangible for different minds. Initially, it was rare that we saw Black people—Black women—in science. While I was a teacher, I made intentional efforts to use slides to bring in Black scientists and highlight their contributions.

I think it also comes down to allowing students to feel like they belong. Science can seem really abstract. When you have concrete examples, such as a really crazy tornado in New Orleans, we can speak to the class about the conditions and why that tornado happened. We can ask, ‘What created the infrastructure?’ We can discuss new building techniques and other preventative measures.

Introducing real life projects into scientific phenomena can connect science to a student’s life. This gives a different lens with which to view. It’s not decontextualized anymore. It’s not elitist.

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