Mr. Torian Black is the FPA Westwood Campus middle school science teacher, so not surprisingly, he starts the conversation like a lesson.
“Who do you think of when you think of scientists?”
When he was his students’ age, the image that popped into his mind was of a middle-aged white man in a lab coat, perhaps with rumpled hair and bushy mustache like the German physicist Albert Einstein.
But when his students close their eyes and think of a scientist, they might envision another man with big hair and a bushy mustache, one most adults have never heard of: David Hedgley, an African-American computer scientist and mathematician.
In the 1980s, Hedgley solved a problem that had stumped his colleagues for more than a decade: How to display three-dimensional objects accurately on a computer screen.
Anyone who enjoys 3D video games has Hedgley to thank.
For a recent assignment, Black’s sixth grade students, most of whom are African American or Hispanic, reached into a hat and pulled out one of 30 names of black or Hispanic scientists. Then they created a poster board presentation on that scientist’s life and achievements.
Black, who recently finished his two-year Teach For America commitment, saved some of his favorite on top of a tall cabinet in the back of his classroom.
He steps into a chair and pulls down a big stack of colorful poster boards with pictures, text, drawings and even Christmas lights carefully attached.
There’s a poster about Elbert Frank Cox, the first African American in the world to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. Born in 1895 (just 32 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed), the World War I veteran earned his degree at Cornell University in 1925.
There’s another about Euclid, often considered the father of geometry. Some historians believe he was born in the fourth century BC in Egypt – which would make him African.
One poster is about the modern-day African-American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has rocketed science into pop culture with appearances on “The Daily Show” and his “StarTalk” TV show on National Geographic.
“They see a black man being brilliant and they love it,” says Black, who now teaches eighth grade science.
Traditional science curricula rarely include black and brown faces.
Even though he graduated from Memphis’ most prestigious public high school in 2006, he found out there were holes in his knowledge, especially when it came to African-American’s contributions to science.
Those gaps were filled during his years at Howard University, a historically black university, where he started as a mechanical engineering major.
But in the summer between his sophomore and junior year, he worked as a tutor with D.C. public school students – and was shocked by how far behind they were.
“I was tutoring a 10th grader in basic division problems,” he says.
“After that summer experience, I said, ‘I’m switching my major.’”
He studied African-American history instead – and today he’s teaching his students the way he wishes he’d been taught.
There’s a saying: You cannot be what you cannot see.
Children who never see anyone who looks like them in certain professions may get the message that they can’t succeed in those fields.
But because of Black’s commitment to expand the view of what scientists look like, his students know that with enough hard work, they could become the next Neil deGrasse Tyson.