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Leading the Way: A Conversation with Carmen Sidbury

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Carmen Sidbury wants you to join her! "To do this work [of encouraging students to take ownership of their STEM learning] you have to engage others and meet people where they are. There is a role for all of us and we have to take the knowledge we have and change lives." Sidbury, Associate Provost for Research at Spelman College, spoke to us about how she found engineering, how she progressed in her career, and how she knows that, although she "can't do it all," she can recruit others to her important work of bringing diverse students into STEM.


Why Engineering?


Sidbury discussed her first experience with engineering, which came when her high school physics teacher recommended her for a "life-changing" summer program at Clemson University. Up until then, she was following a track to become a high school math or science teacher, because "they were my career role models" at her small high school in rural North Carolina. About the experience at Clemson, she said that she "might have studied engineering in college" without the experience of the summer program, but that the program really introduced her to engineering and "motivated her to consider studying" it, so she applied to North Carolina A & T University and earned her degree in mechanical engineering. After graduation, she worked at AT&T-Bell Labs before returning to graduate school at Georgia Institute of Technology to earn the first Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering by an African-American female.


Transitioning from Industry to Academia


Although now in an academic leadership role at Spelman, Sidbury's career has spanned both industry and academia, and she stepped into her current role as she transitioned from industry to higher education. Along the way she received great advice from her peers and mentors, who encouraged her to "consider an alternative career track." Her own advice to others is "be prepared" for changes in your personal or professional life as well as changes in the world and technology. As she moved into an academic leadership position at the University of Washington, she got the opportunity to lead a reorganization of diversity programs in the College of Engineering, and it "became clear that the impact would be far greater than working in telecommunications." She also realized that, as an African-American woman engineer with corporate experience, she brought many unique aspects to her new position and found it "powerful and meaningful" to be able to bring her varied experience and background to her new work.


There are many challenges to sustaining diversity programs, whether they are scholarship programs or other recruiting efforts. Sidbury continually asks herself what her role is in this important mission. She says "I've benefitted from much of this work," and thinks about "what do we do to sustain this?" Despite legal and other challenges to increasing diversity in STEM higher education, she feels "charged with ensuring that others who come later will continue to have access." Leaders need to have a "finger on the pulse" of what is happening in the political world of higher education and "have a strategy to not be paralyzed" by barriers to operation. This is where Sidbury sees a key role for WEPAN; to provide networks for "sharing and creating strategic plans for sustainability" of these programs despite the adversity involved in running them.


Advice and Future Visions


Sidbury wants "all young women to think about STEM as a career, whether they stay in it or use it as a launching pad." She believes that STEM is a useful tool that can engage students regardless of their life's passions and wants students to know that "STEM is a broad area they can use to make the world a better place." Her recent work focuses on ensuring that pedagogies in STEM classrooms are inclusive, the information presented is engaging, and students are encourage to commit to lifelong learning. Sidbury wants students to keep honing their skill sets and be aware of changes in technology and the world around them. She sees her current job as an opportunity to be a role model and finds it highly rewarding. "I try to not take it lightly, recognizing that some days the message won't resonate, but I can get lucky and it will help a student." She says "I've been fortunate that others have stepped in for me," in regards to her personal network of peers and mentors. "I just hope I can offer something to help someone else." She hopes others will offer the same thing. "There are a lot of people to engage, including corporate partners," those in secondary or higher education, and individuals at federal agencies. "There is a message and a role for many" in bringing about change in STEM pedagogies, classrooms, and fields. Although there is work left to be done by all of us, "we're definitely headed in the right direction." Sidbury adds that new interdisciplinary programs lend themselves nicely to bringing diverse populations into STEM, and women's engineering programs such as those at Spelman and Smith College can share some of their best practices in promoting inclusive pedagogies and behaviors. "Although there is no silver bullet," Sidbury comments, "there are many ways to move forward."

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