In New Jersey classrooms, where many students of color learn from educators of color, a subject matter shift is afoot. As the Hechinger Report detailed, mid-career teachers of color with institutional support and training are transitioning into science fields with the help of The New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning. The center is tapping into established teachers and training them in physics and chemistry because they know training people to become quality educators is more difficult than training quality teachers to teach science.

The center provides field experience, test prep and more, which positions the teachers to make STEM more accessible to students. The program boasts relatively inclusive rates: about a third of physics and chemistry teachers who receive their training are Black or Latino.

Hechinger profiled Erika Leak, a chemistry teacher, whose lesson on atomic structure enraptured her students. During a flame test, students who believed fire could only be orange or red learned that observing different elements could mean seeing bursts of green, orange and yellow. They connected the experience with fireworks and considered colorful bonfires. 

Leak’s lesson would give students a reference point in forthcoming lessons on atomic structure and electron activity, she said. “I wanted them to put that experience to a concept that’s actually pretty dense.” 

Beyond providing students with a cool experiment for the day, Leak and other teachers can inspire students to challenge their assumptions about who does what in society, especially through education. Leak candidly discussed the way people commonly think about certain subjects. 

“I think that’s one of the things that turned me off when I was a kid,” she said. “I thought science is all white men with crazy hair.”