Science and the City
Shakira Brown was on track to be a doctor when her career path took an unexpected turn.

After studying biology and psychology at Hofstra University and earning her bachelor's degree, Brown started graduate courses at Rutgers University to pursue a career in medicine.

Shakira Brown

Shakira Brown was on her way to being a doctor when her talent for working with students led her to be a science teacher. Image Credit: Shakira Brown

To pay for her classes, she filled in as a substitute teacher at a Newark, N.J., school. "It just came naturally," Brown said of teaching. "It really, really took a hold of me."

Her mentors at the school recognized how naturally Brown taught and encouraged her to earn her full teaching certification that summer. Brown did just that, and that fall she taught seventh-grade science. "It was a gift I didn't know I had until I was in the right circumstance," she said.

The school in Newark wasn't the first time Brown's talent for teaching had been recognized. After observing how Brown assisted her classmates during a dissecting assignment, Brown's high school biology teacher suggested the young teen consider going into teaching. "She was planting a seed in me at that time that would later come to fruition," Brown said.

She currently teaches eighth-grade science at Promise Academy, a charter school in the Harlem community in New York City. She is also actively involved in the Urban Science Corps, a science initiative dedicated to encouraging and preparing urban youth for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

The Urban Science Corps is currently implementing the Arctica Science Research Project for Urban Youth. The project is an International Polar Year project funded through a grant from NASA's Earth Science Mission Directorate. NASA's involvement in the project supports the agency's goal of attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines.

The Urban Science Corps leads students in scientific research through after-school programs, recreation centers, community centers, museums and science centers. College and university students serve as "science coaches" to guide younger students in exploring polar ice on Earth as well as the polar regions of other planetary bodies. The program uses NASA's Exploring Ice in the Solar System activities, written by Richard Shope, a science research analyst at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Brown was introduced to the project at a presentation by Shope about the Exploring Ice in the Solar System resources. They talked more about the Urban Science Corps program, and Brown came on board as the program's East Coast coordinator.

Shope said the idea behind the Urban Science Corps is to relate scientific research to students in a way that actively involves them in the scientific process and investigating their own research questions. He wants students from metropolitan areas to have a sense of belonging in the science community, which will make them more likely to study science in school and more confident to pursue careers in scientific fields.

Shakira Brown talking with three teenage girls in a classroom

Shakira Brown teaches eighth-grade science at Promise Academy, a charter school in the Harlem community in New York City. Image Credit: Shakira Brown

"If you broaden it out from just the idea that we need future scientists, we want students to experience themselves as scientists now," Shope said. "The Urban Science Corps creates the opportunity to really think through your thoughts and follow your own curiosity."

Brown is following her curiosity to Antarctica later this year. In October, she will travel to Antarctica with Stephen Pekar, a geology professor at Queens College. Pekar said the expedition will seek to learn more about Earth by collecting geophysical data in the western part of the Ross Sea and imaging sediments deposited during what has been dubbed "the greenhouse world," a time when Earth was significantly warmer than today and Antarctica was mainly ice-free.

"This time period was also the last time that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was as high as what they predict for this century," Pekar said. "The goal of this expedition is to locate the optimal site to drill these sediments."

Last fall, Pekar was part of a drilling project that obtained Antarctic sediments that are up to 20 million years old.

During the approximately eight weeks there, Brown will be on the sea ice, with the research team, doing public outreach and education. Through weekly videoconferences she will teach one to two lessons that will be broadcast to approximately 100 U.S. middle schools and high schools. The lessons will cover the effect of climate change on polar regions, basic geology, the layers of Earth and what scientists learn from looking at Earth's layers.

Brown will also keep in touch with students over the Internet using a blog. "For my kids, it's an adventure for them as well as for me," she said. "It's like they're going with me. They're living vicariously through me."

Her interactive teaching style and her bold and fearless journey to Antarctica have excited students about studying science. Brown said that a year ago some of the boys in her science class wanted to be professional basketball players. Today, they talk about being geologists or geneticists. Two of her students recently applied to go on a scientific mountaineering expedition to a glaciated volcano in the Cascade Mountains in the state of Washington. The girls told Brown that it was her courage to go to Antarctica that gave them the courage to want to go to the Washington mountains.

"It's very important that we engage students in this country specifically in science and in math because they are so far behind globally that it's become detrimental," Brown said. "The more that teachers step up and do these amazing things, the more they will push our kids to step up and do some amazing things as well."

Related Resources
Urban Science Corps   →
NASA and the International Polar Year
What is Antarctica?
NASA Education Web Site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services