teacher and students perform an experiment at summer camp

Camp will highlight Gullah/Geechee culture to spark students’ interest in science

$300,000 grant will fund teacher training, planning, implementation

A summer camp for fifth- and sixth-grade students in South Carolina’s Gullah/Geechee community will illustrate STEM topics from their community and provide opportunities to interact with professionals who look like them, working in the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

The camp planned for 2021 will be staffed by teachers who have participated in training and will include guests, such as a NASA scientist (who’s also a barbecue pitmaster), a local master gardener and a professor of biological sciences — all from the Gullah/Geechee community. The goal is to spark the students’ interest in STEM fields by highlighting their culture as a catalyst for learning.

“I feel like growing up as a Black American and as a Gullah/Geechee community member, there were not a lot of representations of me and my culture in the STEM professions,” says Regina Wragg Ciphrah, who earned a doctorate in biology from the University of South Carolina. “Even now in 2020, when we talk to children and ask them to draw a scientist, a lot of them are still drawing white men.”

Ciphrah is co-principal investigator on a two-year $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that will fund the summer camp and training for teachers to lead it. She owns Verbalizing Visions, an education consulting firm, and previously was employed at UofSC’s College of Education. Fenice Boyd is principal investigator; also on the team is Jamelle Ellis as a co-principal investigator. Boyd is department chair and professor in the department of instruction and teacher education in the College of Education. Ellis earned  a doctorate in environmental health sciences from the University of South Carolina and is the owner of Empowerment Strategies, an environmental consulting firm. 

Both Ciphrah, who is from Georgetown County, South Carolina, and Ellis, who grew up in Charleston, are members of the Gullah/Geechee community, descendants of enslaved Africans who live in the coastal areas and sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Because the population is concentrated in these areas, the community has been able to maintain many of its cultural traditions, including language and agricultural practices.

“The reason that we chose to work with the Gullah/Geechee community is to leverage the preservation of historical practices over centuries to enhance the learning opportunities in an informal setting for both teachers and students,” Boyd says. “Very little is taught in the standardized classroom curriculum about these African cultural traditions.”

Students will go through a selection process to attend the camp, which will take place at UofSC’s Baruch Institute in Georgetown County.

“There's an opportunity to show the children through a fun, hands-on experience and culturally relevant curriculum where they fit into STEM fields,” Ellis says. “The camp focuses on informal learning in the STEM disciplines and offers the children an opportunity to represent their understanding using digital tools such as an iPad.”

The camp will focus on aquaponics and will allow students to engage with the cultural and historical perspective of Gullah/Geechee success in growing cotton, rice and vegetables in brinewater as well as current practices that use a closed system. The curriculum will relate these traditions to STEM topics and environmental stewardship. Children also will interview camp leaders and members of the community in STEM fields. 

Camp organizers are partnering with Apple Inc. to provide iPads and training for pre-service and in-service teachers who will guide children as they develop camp projects and digital portfolios. Their work will be presented at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, which promotes and preserves Gullah/Geechee history and culture.

There's an opportunity to show the children through a fun, hands-on experience and culturally relevant curriculum where they fit into STEM fields.

Jamelle Ellis, who earned a doctorate in environmental health sciences from UofSC and is the owner of Empowerment Strategies

Planning is under way for teacher training, developing community partnerships and creating curriculum for the camp next summer with consideration for COVID-19 should it continue to be an issue. Culturally sustaining professional learning for teachers — both pre-service and in-service — is the root of the grant. 

“We're looking to establish what the existing cultural competencies of the teachers are and help them better understand the importance of including cultural elements to design the curriculum,” Ellis says. “This is a feasibility study, and we hope the camp will become a sustainable program. We are also looking at the potential to expand the scope of the research to other regions and demographics.”

Boyd, Ciphrah and Ellis say obtaining the grant to plan and implement the camp furthers their passion to provide opportunities for Gullah/Geechee students to find mentors and role models in STEM fields. 

“To be able to go back home to the Georgetown community at the heart of the Gullah/Geechee corridor and expose students to the research facilities at Baruch, I hope will show them they may choose a career in these fields,” Ciphrah says. “Gullah community members have been environmental stewards for generations, and we are scientists. Just because we may not use the same jargon or methodology doesn't mean we don't have the same skill sets of scientists and engineers. Studying science through a historical lens can bring out a sense of pride and self-efficacy about who we are and the value of our culture."

Banner image: Jamelle Ellis guided students in performing experiments on flooding, water runoff and soil composition during the University of South Carolina Partners for Minorities in Engineering and Computer Science residential workshop in 2019. Ellis is co-principal investigator for a National Science Foundation grant to create a summer 2021 camp for Gullah/Geechee students. Like the experience at the engineering and computing program, the camp will be designed to spark interest in the STEM fields among minority students.  

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