Combating Racism in STEM: Newly Tenured Professor Walks the Walk
Before anyone can fully understand Dr. Leroy Long III, newly tenured associate professor of Engineering Fundamentals at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, it’s helpful to hear from the students he mentors.
One of those students, Melanie Canfield, is a Mechanical Engineering senior at Embry-Riddle and a university volleyball player from Tallahassee, Florida. She dreams of leading a team in designing the most sustainable forms of renewable energy. She’s well on her way, with an internship lined up this summer, designing HVAC systems for hospital labs. However, earlier in her Embry-Riddle career, Canfield recalled, she struggled to embrace her Hispanic background and lacked confidence as a woman in engineering.
Then, she met Dr. Long, director of the Engineering, Arts & Sports Engagement (EASE) Research Team. The group was formed by Dr. Long and alumni such as McKenna (James) Gooch, a former Aerospace Engineering major and volleyball player, while they conducted research into undergraduate engineering education. Their co-authored paper, titled Set and Spike: Mentoring a Student-Athlete in STEM for Undergraduate Engineering Education Research, examines the importance of mentorship for athletes and underrepresented students in STEM. The group continues to support educational equity, racial justice, student retention and career readiness.
“He gave me confidence to rise up,” said Canfield, who was just named the Most Outstanding Student in Embry-Riddle’s Energy Systems Track. “It can be intimidating to be a woman in STEM, but having people supporting you and giving you confidence to go after your career is very helpful. He definitely did that for me and gave me technical tools and support, such as reviewing technical articles, creating infographics and presenting a research poster.”
Another student, McKenzie Jackson, an Embry-Riddle senior from Bowie, Maryland, looks forward to receiving her bachelor’s in Civil Engineering this year then continuing on to complete her master’s degree in Business Administration. Throughout her time at Embry-Riddle, she has completed multiple internships while serving as lacrosse team captain and completing research as part of the EASE team. As she looks forward to working for ARCO Design Build in Atlanta this summer, Jackson credits Dr. Long with giving her insights and keeping her motivated.
“He’s constantly looking for ways to get us funding, and to find ways to get us more involved in the school and boost our resumes,” Jackson said. “Having someone in an authoritative position who goes the extra mile to check in on you to make sure you’re okay, to listen to you if you’re struggling – he will always make time.”
Such testimonials reflect Dr. Long’s intense, lifelong commitment to STEM education and to his students. Dr. Long recently joined the ranks of a small number of Black faculty members to earn tenure at Embry-Riddle. He has been a tireless mentor for students, especially Black students and student athletes involved in STEM, and he publishes illuminating research into their social and academic experiences. His goal to help more underrepresented students not only succeed, but thrive in STEM was shaped by his own experiences.
Mentors, Funding and Enrichment
Dr. Long remembers the influence of his mother, a first-generation college student with a background in computer science, as well as one of his middle school science teachers, Mrs. Bonnie Porter, who encouraged him to join a summer enrichment program at Wright State University. After graduating high school with a tuition-based scholarship from the program, Dr. Long enrolled at Wright State as a Mechanical Engineering major. From there, Dr. Long went on to earn a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Ph.D. in STEM Education, with a focus on Engineering Education, from The Ohio State University.
While pursuing his degrees, mentors like Dr. Clark Beck, Dr. Ruby Mawasha, Dr. Gregory Washington, Dr. Terrell Strayhorn and Dr. James Moore III served as powerful examples of academic achievement. They counteracted the racism that Dr. Long recalls encountering from other students and professors as well as from institutional structures and policies.
Reflecting on his time in college, Dr. Long concluded, “You could feel the social isolation and points of systemic racism. I would have done so much better, with greater support. I would have been healthier and happier. I know many other Black students have similar experiences.”
Many people need to see someone like themselves to see what they can aspire to. If students don’t have role models or resources … we need to provide them.
Although students of all races enroll in STEM programs at approximately equal rates, a study published by the journal Education Researcher found that Black and Latinx students drop such majors at higher rates than their white peers. Students from the study recounted experiencing racial discrimination, encountering hostile environments and feeling frustrated with the lack of representation and support from faculty. This troubling statistic needs to be addressed, Dr. Long said.
He added that three factors – adequate funding, enrichment and mentorship – are key components to closing the gap and ensuring that Black and Latinx students are not being pushed out of STEM.
According to analysis from the nonprofit EdBuild, there is a $23 billion funding gap between predominantly white and nonwhite school districts for grades K-12. Underfunded schools are generally not able to offer advanced courses, tutoring or the resources students need to prepare for college. This ultimately means that students from those neglected school districts are at a disadvantage when they enter college and may feel like they are playing a perpetual game of catch-up. STEM programs can be especially daunting as they usually presume a baseline of hard skills and knowledge from new students.
As Dr. Long put it, “What can you do if your pre-college program does not have calculus, physics, or computer programming or graphics?”
Pre-college enrichment programs like the one that Dr. Long attended have historically helped gifted students overcome these inequities. Many give students funding, plus the opportunity to expand upon what they learn in the classroom and develop the skills to excel in a rigorous academic environment. But in higher education, Dr. Long believes that individual mentorship and representation are also instrumental to a student’s success. “Many people need to see someone like themselves to see what they can aspire to,” he emphasized, noting the lack of Black professors and faculty members on campuses across the nation. “If students don’t have role models or resources … we need to provide them.”
`To Lead with Love, Follow Up With Justice’
Dr. Long’s philosophy and activism are guided in large part by him being a follower of Christ. He first used his motto, “to lead with love, follow up with justice,” at a symposium highlighting student-athletes in STEM, led by Embry-Riddle’s Chaplain, Rev. David Keck. Dr. Long credits his faith with teaching him about compassionate leadership and, indeed, he said he strives to relate to his students on a personal level. Remarking on what sets Dr. Long apart, McKenzie Jackson said, “He recognizes that we are humans and we face challenges. He recognizes the impact of work, school deadlines and the pandemic, and he helps us however he can. He is constantly asking, how are you?”
At a time when social justice dominates headlines and conversations about race are happening in the mainstream, universities are struggling to understand their role in shaping the future. Dr. Long points to a roadmap already partially created by Black scholars but long ignored. In his recent publication, Toward an Anti-Racist Engineering Classroom for 2020 and Beyond: A Starter Kit - AEE Advances in Engineering Education, Dr. Long writes that higher education should meet this moment in history by eradicating the systemic racism that still exists in the culture, pedagogy, curriculum, policies and among personnel of engineering programs. He proposes 20 actionable items for building anti-racist engineering classrooms. Chief among them, and something clearly reflected in his work at Embry-Riddle, is incorporating contemporary, culturally relevant curriculum to utilize the diverse perspectives and experiences that students contribute to the learning environment and to engineering as a whole.
Dr. Long described his views this way: “God is equitable in giving us gifts and talents, and it is racist policies and practices that suppress them. We must eradicate those policies and honor everyone’s humanity.” No one is predisposed to fail, he argues. Rather, institutions fail their students by perpetuating inequities in education.
For additional resources, Dr. Long recommends reading the call to action put forth by himself and other Black engineering faculty, On Becoming an Anti-Racist University – Black in Engineering, as well as “Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation” by Dr. Ebony McGee.
Embry-Riddle Celebrates a Milestone
Dr. Long is one of the first Black faculty members to gain tenure at Embry-Riddle. He hopes that by mentoring students, he will not be the last.
Lon D. Moeller, Embry-Riddle senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, said: “Embry-Riddle appreciates and admires Dr. Long’s dedication to students as well as the critical perspectives he brings to the College of Engineering. He is an influential role model for all students, and particularly to the students who were challenged by taking difficult courses during a worldwide pandemic. We’re very proud of all Dr. Long has achieved and look forward to watching his continuing efforts as one of our up-and-coming faculty leaders.”
Moeller noted that the university is currently recruiting a chief diversity and inclusion officer who will work with Embry-Riddle faculty serving as Collegiate Diversity and Inclusion Coordinators to oversee a strategic plan for progress toward enriching the university community.