“The thing I’m most proud about would probably be that we put silence to the stereotypes and the doubts that we have being in the Delta,” said a high-school sophomore living in the Mississippi Delta. “Who would expect Black kids who grew up in poverty in the Delta to be able to make a robot within a month and then go off to an international competition?”

The student, a participant in the Actualizing STEM Potential (ASP) in the Mississippi Delta project, provided that reflection after completing a robot for participating in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics competition.

ASP in the Mississippi Delta — an afterschool robotics program now in its seventh year — encourages African American high-school students to consider STEM careers by helping them realize their capacity to achieve in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The program, in its third year at a no-cost extension because of the pandemic, was funded by a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The program was patterned after an ongoing Montgomery County Public Schools robotics collaborative that Brenda Brand, ASP’s principal investigator and a professor of science education in the Virginia Tech School of Education, co-developed 22 years ago.

Brand continues to lead the Virginia Tech School of Education research team that developed the Mississippi Delta program, which is facilitated by high-school instructors.

ASP students can enroll in their freshman year and remain in the program throughout their high-school years. They take computer-aided drafting, computer programming, and electronics courses taught by faculty members from Mississippi Valley State University, a historically Black university near the school district.

The ASP program also includes pipeline STEM summer camps for students in grades 3–8 and career-oriented field trips and workshops, all designed to motivate and broaden students’ perceptions of the varied career paths in STEM fields.

The fall semester culminates in an annual STEM Night celebration in which students demonstrate their engineering design solutions, many of which are robotics applications that focus on solving problems in their local community and larger society.

Each spring, the program begins with a Saturday event that jumpstarts the beginning of the FIRST Robotics competition. Teams from around the world attend the event. The ASP team is Delta Overload #6068.

A robotics competition
Delta Overload team members await their turn at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics competition.

“While the competition is a source of motivation,” Brand said, “the ASP program is not about winning a competition, although it would be a nice accomplishment. The ASP program is about supporting students in the Mississippi Delta in realizing their potential to pursue STEM careers. ASP is driven by a social justice framework that supports students in refuting deficit narratives about themselves and their communities through their achievements.”

Brand added that the ASP learning environment intentionally challenges the social messaging that too often diminishes minority students’ capabilities and sense of self. ASP attempts to counteract that messaging by setting high expectations and building students’ confidence through hands-on, experiential learning. This approach helps students meet the challenges the program provides them, building their sense of self-efficacy and helping them reimagine their futures.

“At first, I was kind of skeptical about it because I thought it was full of geeks or whatever, but then I turned out to be a geek myself,” said one ASP program participant. “I was like: I love it!”

The Delta Overload team (in yellow) with their robot, designated by their team number, 6068.
The Delta Overload team (in yellow) with their robot, labeled with their team number, 6068.

Also involved in the ASP project are two co-principal investigators, Takumi Sato, an assistant clinical professor of science education, and Tom Williams, a professor of special education, both in the Virginia Tech School of Education. During the earlier years of the project, Sato supervised the doctoral students in developing the curriculum and provided support for the high-school faculty members and students during competition events. Williams co-developed the research design and is currently supporting data analysis.

Research indicates that the program is having a positive impact on students’ scientific identities and sense of self-efficacy. Five of the nine students who entered as freshmen and remained throughout their high-school years are attending college, where they are pursuing majors in engineering and other STEM fields.

Plans are underway to sustain the ASP program beyond the grant period. The research team is also planning to use the outcomes of the program as a springboard for a new initiative designed to advance their coursework and preparation for STEM majors.

“The ASP program in the Mississippi Delta is an excellent example of how we in the Virginia Tech School of Education are reimagining the future,” said Kristin Gehsmann, director of the School of Education. “We believe — and are proving every day — that research can, indeed, change lives and the world.”

Learn more about the Virginia Tech School of Education’s research, projects, labs, and centers here.

Written by Sharon Flynn Stidham