University STEM Academy Built on Principles of Kwanzaa

UCR program aims to advance academic, leadership skills of African American teens


The University S.T.E.M. Academy is designed around the principles of Kwanzaa.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Unity. Self-determination. Collective work and responsibility. Cooperative economics. Purpose. Creativity. Faith.

For those who observe Kwanzaa, these are the guiding principles of a seven-day celebration created to connect African Americans with their African cultural and historical heritage. They also constitute the principles around which UC Riverside’s University S.T.E.M. Academy was founded.

The pilot project, which launched in September with seed funding from UCR Chancellor Kim Wilcox, offers instruction and mentoring in math, science and leadership skills for 6th- through 9th-graders in the Inland Empire. It is aimed at, but not limited to, African American students.

“African Americans are one of the most underrepresented groups in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, with about 5 percent of the professionals in STEM careers and 2 percent of STEM Ph.D.s,” said Carolyn Murray, UCR professor of psychology and director of the University STEM Academy. “The low representation of African Americans in the STEM fields is just a symptom of a more pervasive and detrimental reality, the racial achievement gap. This gap is prevalent across grades, course selection, standardized-test performance, dropout rates, suspension rates, college-going rates and college completion rates.”

Citing data from the Riverside County Office of Education, Murray said African American students not only fall way behind their white peers, they also fall behind their Latino peers in math and language arts and are less likely to graduate than their Latino peers. They also are more likely to drop out of school.

“The mission of this academy is to help produce a critical mass of graduates who are prepared for STEM careers by increasing the diversity of those who desire and who are qualified to major in the STEM fields,” she said. “We also want to introduce them to the variety of careers available in STEM fields.”

Students meet for six hours on 10 Saturdays from early October through mid-March. Mornings are devoted to instruction and hands-on projects designed to boost math and science skills, while afternoon sessions focus on personal growth and leadership skills, SAT preparation and how to apply for college online. Speakers include local physicians, scientists, professors in STEM fields, and mentors from area community organizations.

Parents attend for two hours in the morning in an effort to empower them to empower their children by introducing them to workshops on topics such as Common Core State Standards, which has been implemented this fall throughout California, but remains a mystery to too many parents and some teachers, Murray said.

Demand for the program exceeded Murray’s expectations for the first year.

“We initially planned to have 12 boys and 12 girls,” she said. “On intake day, 34 boys and girls came. We took all of them.”

Kwanzaa, which is celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, was created by Maulana Karenga, professor of Africana studies at California State University, Long Beach and first celebrated in 1966. Each of the seven principles is observed on a different day, and are believed to have been key to building strong, productive families and communities in Africa, according to the official Kwanzaa website.

Media Contact

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Additional Contacts

Carolyn Murray
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