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SySTEMic Action Creating Multicultural Coloring Pages

Posted: November 3, 2016

Five doctoral candidates have formed a new educational product business to promote diversity within STEM
Artist Sean Bodley draws coloring pages for kids with science superheroes who are people of color. (Photo by Cameron Hart)

Artist Sean Bodley draws coloring pages for kids with science superheroes who are people of color. (Photo by Cameron Hart)

By Meg McLaurin

A team of five doctoral candidates has formed an educational product business to promote diversity within STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—fields after winning $2,500 at Ag Springboard 2016.

While SySTEMic Action’s initial goal was to create an educational comic book starring people of color, the team decided to pare down its goal into creating coloring book pages that will be available online for purchasing and printing.

The coloring pages will be designed by Sean Bodley, a local artist.

“We have kind of re-tooled our business plan since we are all really busy Ph.D. students, and we have to actually get our Ph.D.s,” says Jasmine Dillon, animal science Ph.D. candidate. “You have to help yourself if you’re going to help anybody else.”

The team of Ph.D. students who want kids to see diverse superheroes in the STEM sciences.

The other members of the team are Rachelle Copeland, chemistry Ph.D. candidate, Kayla Echols, molecular, cellular and integrative biosciences Ph.D. candidate, Maurice Smith, Jr., agriculture extension and education Ph.D. candidate and Saundra Wheeler, entomology Ph.D. candidate.

The Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program at the College of Agricultural Sciences hosts the annual Ag Springboard competition to give students real-world experience in business ventures related to their field.

SySTEMic Action placed second in the 2016 competition behind Blue and White Chips, now called ROY BIV Chips, a two-student team marketing an array of naturally colored potato chips, especially blue and white chips for Penn State fans.

“[A]ll of us are black students that are in STEM or STEM-related fields, and we grew up not seeing a lot of representation of people of color in science, in mathematics, in engineering, in technology,” says Dillon.

Spotting and Solving a Problem

“We recognized that an important part of a child setting their minds on a particular career track is being able to see themselves in that position, and being able to see yourself in a position requires seeing people who you can identify within those positions."

Although all members of the group are black, they are aiming for a range of diversity, including race and gender.

“I think that we’re driven by race,” says Dillon. “But we each have complex identities. We are all more than just our race.”

Artist Sean Bodley draws coloring pages for kids for SySTEMic Action, a team of Ph.D. students creating new products to promote diversity within STEM sciences. (Photo by Cameron Hart)

Closing the Diversity Gap

Each year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress is administered to 4th, 8th, and 12th-grade students to gauge how well they are doing in subjects across the board, including science. The test showed significant discrepancies in science scores by race, ethnicity and gender among 12th graders, similar to reports in previous years, according to National Public Radio.

But results among 4th and 8th-graders indicate racial achievement gaps and gender gaps are narrowing, U.S. Secretary of Education John King told NPR.

The SySTEMic Action team members funneled the money they earned from Ag Springboard into paying Bodley and paying for the fees associated with becoming an official business. They believe the money they earn from the coloring book pages will be enough for them to fund T-shirts and other merchandise. In order to gain attention for their products, the team plans to use communities within Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogs that include STEM and educational groups geared toward diversity.

Between the coloring book and merchandise profits, they hope it will be enough to one day begin working on their original plan of a comic book.

A preliminary package of four coloring book pages, with a currently undecided release date, will be made available to give an idea of how the final coloring book will look.

“Several of us will be done with our programs [in a few years],” says Dillon. “So, our commitments will look a little bit different.”

Giving Back

While the competition was stressful for Dillon, she says the first-hand experience has been worth the effort.

“For us, it almost feels like something we have to do,” she says. “I’m here. I got here because of a lot of hard work and people supporting [me] on the way here, and I need to give back by helping other students see that they can get where I am, too.”