UNC Asheville faculty members Agya Boakye-Boaten, Tiece Ruffin, and Landon Ward are leading a new initiative this summer to tackle the ever-widening opportunity and achievement gap between Black and white Asheville City and Buncombe County Public Schools’ students. This year, the group, along with Colorful Pages Coalition and UNC Asheville student interns Demon Thomas (May 2022) and Morgan Thornton (December 2021), leads the S.T.E.M. Fun-Packs 2021 initiative, distributing 294 learning kits to Asheville City Schools students and community-based learning youth. Each S.T.E.M. Fun-Pack contains culturally relevant and engaging literacy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) books, activity guides, and materials. The grade-based materials include learning books spotlighting Black protagonists and examples of black excellence, plus hands-on activities that encourage parent and family participation.
This new STEM-based initiative, purchased and assembled with $25,000 in grant funding from the Dogwood Health Trust Racial Equity Community Grant, is modeled after a successful summer 2020 initiative led by the faculty trio and support from Colorful Pages Coalition and Read to Succeed.
“S.T.E.M. Fun-Packs support Black students, families, and community-based leaders in complementing, strengthening, nurturing, and supporting reading and STEM skills,” says Ruffin, UNC Asheville’s interim director of Africana Studies and professor of education. “This initiative practices practical equity with concrete tools that support student learning and affirm Black children and youth in Asheville.”
The S.T.E.M. Fun-Packs will play a vital role in addressing the impact of historic school shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which took a disproportionate toll on Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities.
“Remote learning depended heavily on devices, access to the internet, WiFi, and other digital learning tools; however, these Fun-Packs are curated with an equity and inclusion lens,” explains Ruffin. “Students and their families will benefit from tangible, non-returnable books, activities, and other learning tools for student, family, and community engagement. These Fun-Packs have long-term positive effects and can be shared and passed onto younger siblings, family members, and community friends.”
“Representation matters. By featuring Black leaders and showcasing Black excellence in S.T.E.M. Fun-Pack materials, we are holding up a mirror to Black students and encouraging them to celebrate Black excellence, genius, and joy! These kits strive to promote a positive self-image for Black students to embrace their social identity as an asset, not a barrier.”
An exciting addition to each 2021 S.T.E.M. Fun-Pack is a hands-on activity curated with age in mind by UNC Asheville Lecturer of Environmental Studies Landon Ward and student intern Morgan Thornton.
“The S.T.E.M. Fun-Packs give multiracial students more access to learn about science in fun and culturally relevant ways,” says Ward. “Children are instinctually curious, and these Fun-Packs allow students from Black communities more equitable access to the wonders of the world. This access will hopefully counteract some of the systemic inequity in access to scientific literacy and choice of science courses in future educational endeavors.”
The 2020 program, featured in this UNC Asheville story, delivered educational literacy kits to 176 students from pre-K to 9th grades at four Asheville City Schools (ACS) distribution sites: Hillcrest, Klondyke, Pisgah View Homes, and the ACS Family Resource Center. Each kit included age-appropriate books written by award-winning Black authors, plus activity books and worksheets.
This year’s 2021 initiative is greater in scope than the 2020 program. It will reach a larger number of Asheville City Schools students and families by increasing its outreach and partnering with seven community-based learning centers, including Christine Avery Learning Center, Delta House Life Development, Edington Center, My Daddy Taught Me That, Pisgah View Community – Marvelous Math Club, Umoja, and Youth Transformed for Life.