College of Engineering News

 Photo by Evan Krape 

 

A connection on the basketball court leads to greater opportunities for underrepresented students in the sciences

Chad Starks couldn’t help but laugh. He laughed respectfully, mind you. But he really laughed when he heard the Delaware Space Grant program was having trouble attracting under-represented minority students to apply for its scholarship and research programs.

Wait, wait, he said. There is free money for students who have been historically marginalized and isolated from real opportunity and advantage—and you can’t get people to take it? No one needs $5,000 or $10,000?

Oh, he begged, let me help with that.

Not that Starks is into astrophysics or what happens in the plasma-filled atmosphere of the sun, as his friend, Bill Matthaeus, is. Matthaeus, Unidel professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, has helped to lay the foundation of multiple NASA missions, including the Parker Solar Probe, now orbiting the sun at a distance closer than any previous spacecraft.

That’s all fascinating stuff, but Starks, AS12PhD, is a criminologist. He studies crime and the societal contexts in which it occurs, the things that prompt people to commit them, the powerful forces that so often cripple communities. The analysis he does focuses more on the impact of broken societal structures than the dynamics of colliding magnetic fields.

He has the credentials needed to navigate academic environments, too—a bachelor’s (sociology, Wofford College), two master’s degrees (criminology, alcohol and drug studies, University of South Carolina) and a Ph.D. in criminology from the University of Delaware.

It’s something else, though, that converts that intellectual strength into real power. Starks and Matthaeus are connectors. In engineering contexts, connectors are devices that bring two disparate things together to make a new thing possible. A connector makes electric circuits possible, for example. Power happens.

Chance encounters

With his long locks and colorful clothes, Starks stands in stark contrast to the white-haired Matthaeus. The two met on the basketball court at the Little Bob—as the Carpenter Sports Building is known in the Blue Hen orbit—and struck an immediate friendship.

“He was forceful and his forcefulness made sense,” Matthaeus says. And Starks was a smart floor general, as point guards are supposed to be.

During games, Matthaeus would sometimes ask other players their opinions of various news events. Or he’d hear someone mention they were a math major or an engineering major and he’d ask them if they were aware of the Space Grant program.

“He was like a sideline reporter,” Starks says, shaking his head. “And he would be talking about things that have nothing to do with basketball. Dude, we’re playing ball. Why bring in class and politics and health and opportunities?

“And the next thing I know, I realized I was doing the exact same thing. I walk to the water fountain, ‘Hey man, what’s your major?’”

Matthaeus was intrigued by this criminologist. Starks was intrigued by this physicist. What happened next nobody—not even a theoretical physicist—could have predicted.

As they talked, they realized they had common objectives. Matthaeus and NASA wanted to see more students of color applying for Space Grant scholarships and programs. Starks wanted to kick open doors of opportunity to help people stay out of his criminology research statistics.

Maybe they could work this out together.

A seat at the table

The Space Grant program, created by the U.S. Congress in 1987, promotes interest in space and provides scholarship support for students, in much the same way as the nation’s Land Grant and Sea Grant programs do for agriculture and marine studies, respectively. It supports educators, students and researchers in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and helps develop the highly skilled workforce NASA needs.

UD is the lead institution in Delaware’s Space Grant Consortium, which was founded in 1991 under the leadership of Professor (emeritus) Norman Ness and includes Delaware State UniversityDelaware Technical & Community CollegeWesley CollegeWilmington UniversityVillanova University and Swarthmore College.

Matthaeus says the tipping point for the Delaware Space Grant came in 2012, after he urged one of the students playing in the Little Bob pick-up games to apply for a Space Grant scholarship. The student—an engineering major who was great at math—did so, but Matthaeus was told the student’s grade-point average wasn’t high enough for consideration.

He talked with Starks about that. They discussed other ways to evaluate students. And Matthaeus proposed a lunch with Dermott Mullan, director of Delaware’s Space Grant program from 2005-2015, to see what he thought. By the end of that lunch, new ideas were emerging. Like this one: Maybe Starks should be on the Space Grant’s board of directors.

A formal invitation came shortly after Starks received his doctorate in the January 2013 hooding ceremony at UD. Mullan drove to Dover, where Starks was already on the faculty at Delaware State University, to talk it over and the connection was made.

For Starks, it was “an opportunity to live out my purpose. I’m out here trying to get homeboys and homegirls to stop selling crack and drugs and get on a journey of success. These opportunities are generational changers. And I’m going to have conversations with people who never thought they could do some of the things the University is offering…. We’re talking about changing the way people think.”

And changing the face—and professional make-up—of leadership, too.

It seemed like cosmic timing just a month later, when Mullan got a letter from the national Space Grant program manager—Diane DeTroye—saying Delaware’s Space Grant Program wasn’t doing well as far as diversity was concerned. An improvement plan must be submitted or future funding could be in jeopardy.

Mullan thought Starks could make a continued, long-lasting difference as an associate director of the program, but his role on the Space Grant board required buy-in from the other consortium directors.

So when Mullan called a meeting of the board to discuss the letter, Starks was there.

He wore a gray, pinstripe suit and a nice bowtie to that first meeting. “I don’t want to intimidate or come off as an arrogant know-it-all,” he says. “I want opportunities for students. I want a more diverse population so we have a more competitive pool and do the best science.”

At that meeting Starks took upon himself the job of writing a significant part of the required improvement plan—and NASA ultimately approved Delaware for further funding.

Starks says he has encountered some skepticism along the way.

“We don’t have a [diversity] problem,” he heard some say.

“Yes, that’s why I’m here,” he replied.

Starks thinks the skepticism wasn’t just about his race.

“It was about STEM compared to social science, too,” he says now. “The ‘S’ in STEM was real science. Social science is ‘soft’ science. ‘This gentleman knows nothing about our discipline. Why consider having him in Space Grant?’ I had to make sure they were comfortable about what I was going to bring. If I represent progress, then this is a team effort. The point guard doesn’t do what the shooting guard does. The quarterback doesn’t do what the center does. I can bring an element you haven’t been trained in. Give me a shot.”

They did.

Matthaeus, who became director of the Delaware Space Grant in 2016, has introduced Starks to conferences, such as the American Geophysical Union’s annual gathering, and his audience has expanded significantly. He has been traveling the country speaking to other Space Grant programs and other organizations about making better connections.

“The University of Delaware could be at the forefront of the intersection between sociology and STEM subjects,” Matthaeus says. “It’s a natural thing if you think about it. Physicists and mathematicians and biologists know nothing about the sociology of their own subjects.”

Outside the comfort zone

Making better connections requires more than good intentions.

“Putting up a flyer in the hallway isn’t the best way to reach under-represented minorities,” Starks says. “You have to get out of your comfort zone, get faculty members or affiliates at DuPont to interact with them in a social way. These students have a right to be intimidated or afraid to walk into your office and have a conversation. And I don’t think faculty have understood the power they have to make students feel comfortable about talking about these opportunities.”

Starks opens the door to some uncomfortable conversations, too, because they need to happen. And he didn’t agree to join this work just so the Delaware Space Grant could get NASA off its back and check the diversity box. He is nobody’s token. He knows race is not a welcome topic of conversation. He said as much last fall when talking to students in Prof. Ed Nowak’s physics class.

“You don’t think I get tired of talking about race?” he asked the students. “I do. And you all get tired of hearing it, don’t you? But why should we stop talking about it if we haven’t gotten it right?

“Come on STEM scientists. Y’all don’t quit when the project isn’t what you expected, do you? You go right back in the lab and you get it right. You put the work in no matter how many hours, how much money. Because the outcome is the only thing that shows you have a level of expertise. Why would I stop? I’m a social scientist. Does someone want me to quit talking about it? When people are continuously denied opportunity and consistently denied resources and access to information? I’m not going to quit. I’m not.”

He looked around the room and saw just one female student.

“I appreciate this courage to step outside a comfortable box,” he said to her. “I wonder why the numbers look like they do. Women aren’t as smart as men, right?

“We wouldn’t need the Civil Rights Act or the Women’s Suffrage Act to think differently on something we should assume from the get-go,” he said. “But public policy created the opportunities to marginalize certain groups.”

You can’t change that by looking away or remaining silent. Marginalized groups must be acknowledged, valued and welcomed to the mainstream. Attempting to be color blind is not the solution, he said.

“Acknowledging one’s race is not racism,” he said. “Using it against them is. If you don’t see color, you don’t see Dr. Brian Chad Starks. See me.”

Helping kids love who they are is part of helping them to find hope and purpose for their own lives, he said. Kids without such guidance may have a much tougher path.

“If you don’t give kids access to resources, eventually some of them commit crimes, which means they’re going to be part of my research study instead of Mr. Bill [Matthaeus’] and Dr. Nowak’s.”

The power of connection

Applications from under-represented minorities have increased a lot since Starks joined this effort in 2013: Of the 119 applications from African-American students between 2000-2018, more than 70 percent were submitted since Starks arrived. More than 70 percent of the 24 applications from Hispanic students have come in that time, too.

But the mission is far from accomplished. Starks continues to meet with students, decision makers, advisors and faculty members to help them connect with and understand each other. He and Matthaeus acknowledge there are some political dynamics in play between some of those schools in the consortium, too.

“But when you get everybody in the room, you can create a bridge that everybody wants,” he says.

Harry Burton, who is studying adaptive optics and pursuing his doctorate at Delaware State University, says Starks, the sociologist, helped him get an extension of his NASA grant. That gave him another semester to continue his research, work on his dissertation and also present his work at the Optics Photonics West conference sponsored by the Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers. Burton expects to complete his doctoral studies this spring.

“Sometimes you don’t need people to be in the same field as you—just somebody who is willing to pull their weight for you,” says Burton, who has been part of Space Grant programs since he was an undergrad.

His work in the NASA program reinforced his goal to work with the world’s premier space agency.

“My dream job is NASA,” he says. “And it was really important to get an idea of how their researchers work and how they conduct themselves on a daily basis.”

Joy Muthami, EG19, a senior chemical engineering major at UD, heard about Space Grant when Starks talked about it last spring at a meeting of the RISE—Resources to Insure Successful Engineers—Program.

“I thought it was just for those in astronomy,” she says. “But when I got to talk to them and found out who they are looking for, I was motivated to apply for the grant.”

And she got it.

“It was a phenomenal help,” she says of the $5,000 award. “I got to quit one of my jobs and that was wonderful.”

Now she hopes to pursue a doctorate and apply for one of Space Grant’s graduate fellowships, worth $27,600 per year.

“There are a lot of different opportunities I would never have known about if it wasn’t for him and his recommendation—with graduate school, too, and even the summer research opportunities that are available,” she says of Starks.

The Space Grant helped Manuel Cuesta, AS18, 21M, earn his bachelor’s in physics while working in Matthaeus’ research group. Cuesta is now doing graduate-level work at UD, hoping to get his doctorate. In addition to the financial support, he appreciated the friendship he found in Matthaeus’ group and the opportunities to attend conferences and present his research.

“The first year I was working with him, he invited us to his house for his birthday and I got to meet everybody in a different setting,” he says. “I was the only undergrad and socially that was so beneficial. A lot of the members of his group are foreign nationals and they bring wherever they are from. It’s a huge ethnic mix.”

The mix is essential, but Starks says he usually hears the word “diversity” as a pejorative. It devolves too often, he says, into a box that must be checked. The real power of diversity is in the discovery, the interaction, the exchange, the communication, the mutual learning, the relational connections, the trust-building.

“It’s race, class, gender, yes, but it’s really different ways of thinking, being, knowing, living,” he says. “Get past checking the box. There are people behind those boxes.”

And real connections to make.