Carlotta Berry Sets Example for Black People in STEM Academy

Monday, February 08, 2021
Carlotta Berry

Professor Carlotta Berry is widely recognized for her efforts to inspire the next generation of young people, especially underrepresented minorities, to pursue STEM education and careers.

Black engineering faculty matter.

That’s the assertion Rose-Hulman electrical and computer professor Carlotta Berry and others within the Black in Engineering community have undertaken to inspire positive change, share experiences and stand in solidarity with activism efforts for Black people in America.

“We want to see some changes in the academy. It is time for us to have our say,” says Berry.

After all, she points out that Black faculty represent only 2.4% of faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Berry is among a network of about 400 Black engineering and computer science faculty. After George Floyd’s death in late May 2020 brought forth Black Lives Matters protests nationwide, Black academics and scholars began discussing their shared experiences with discrimination, marginalization, and alienation within higher education, through the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory.

“I was intrigued to read about the accounts of other professors but was severely disappointed to see that there was almost nothing about engineering or computer science faculty,” says Berry, whose efforts have come during a sabbatical leave from Rose-Hulman for the 2020-21 school year. “I came back to the network and worked with Monica Cox (of Ohio State University) and Tahira Reid Smith (of Purdue University) to set up a call-to-action meeting where we could discuss social justice and what we could do to improve the climate for STEM faculty and help institutions promote inclusion and be anti-racist.”

The result has been a Black Engineering Faculty Speak video series, co-produced by Berry, that approached such topics as “What it means to be Black in Robotics?,” “When did you fall in love with engineering?” and “We Rise.”

Other Black engineering colleagues playing key roles in the project have been Leroy Long, III of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Brooke Coley of Arizona State University.

Berry remarks, “Our goal was to not only create a media blitz by having several videos but also a website and platform with a call to action and concrete action items similar to ... We have received lots of positive responses, but most of all we want to see some changes in the academy.

“I became an engineering professor 20 years ago while sitting in class and realizing that I had never had a professor who looked like me, acted like me, or even seemed interested in me. I wanted to change the face of engineering by showing that the profession could be cool, interesting, exciting, engaging, and, most importantly, diverse.”

Berry has written opinion pieces for The New York Times and the American Society of Engineering Education’s Prism magazine that highlight national issues of professors of underrepresented groups, especially for women in electrical and computer engineering. She also has spent her sabbatical being featured in several webinars and online presentations about women in robotics and engineering.

Her efforts to encourage the next generation of young people, especially African Americans and women, to pursue STEM education and careers have brought recognition among Women in Robotics’ 30 Women in Robotics You Need to Know About – 2020. She also was selected one of INSIGHT Into Diversity’s Inspiring Women in STEM, received a Leading Light Award from Indianapolis’ Women & Hi-Tech organization, and been featured in Reinvented magazine (named top story of 2020). She recently received the FIRST Robotics program’s Game Changer Award after being a volunteer and judge for robotics competitions throughout Indiana.

Berry co-founded Rose-Hulman’s Building Undergraduate Diversity (RoseBUD) program, which encourages students from underrepresented groups toward STEM careers; helped student scholars organize an annual SPARK! campus event that brings together high school and college students to work on hands-on projects (this year’s virtual event is scheduled for March 20); and has been co-director of the institute’s multidisciplinary robotics academic program.

At Rose-Hulman, Berry has taught courses from mobile robotics to human robot interaction to electrical engineering design. She has facilitated students to learn by tinkering, hacking, and making mistakes, even by shipping low-cost kits to students’ homes to facilitate online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No matter how it is done, students need to get their hands on something, even if it’s just to see a motor spin,” she says.

Learn more about Berry in her Rose-Hulman profile.