Q&A with Diversity Award Winner Joan Schumaker-Chadde

Joan Schumaker-Chadde’s body of work is a lot like Lake Superior: the list of attributes, no matter how complete, can’t fully articulate its depth and breadth.

Chadde’s 25-year history of serving teachers and students across the state of Michigan with original and impactful outreach has been recognized with the 2020 Michigan Tech Diversity Award.

 About the Award

Established in 2014, Michigan Tech’s Diversity Award showcases Michigan Tech faculty and staff who demonstrate exemplary commitment to initiatives that forward diversity and inclusion. Their contributions come in many forms, including recruitment, retention, teaching, research, multicultural programming, cultural competency and community outreach.

The Diversity Award winner receives a $2,500 award and is honored during the annual Faculty Awards celebration in September. 

All are welcome to submit Diversity Award nominations, which are due by late May each year.

As a founding member of both the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the statewide Michigan Alliance for Environmental & Outdoor Education (2016-present), and the Michigan Tech Civil and Environmental Engineering Diversity and Inclusion committee (2018-present), Chadde is most in her element when she’s outdoors. But her work also requires resourcefulness and tenacity in the office: It’s one thing to craft and operate programs and another thing entirely to fund them. Chadde excels at both. 

“As Director of the Center for Science and Environmental Outreach for the past 25 years, Chadde expands Michigan Tech’s educational influence far beyond our campus boundaries,” said Diversity Council Chair and Interim Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Audrey Mayer. “Her Center’s programming for K-12 students from Calumet to Detroit draws new generations to STEM fields every year.” 

“She has ensured that all K-12 students can see a STEM future for themselves by connecting them with Michigan Tech student members of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Engineers,” Mayer said, referring to Chadde’s organization of Michigan Tech’s Alternative Spring Break projects, in which students flip the traditional beach vacation script to embark on social justice, humanitarian and educational missions.

In this Q&A, Chadde reflects on more than two decades of raising STEM education awareness and bringing environmental and engineering programs to underrepresented communities — an apt illustration of how a body of work speaks volumes.

Q: What's your personal definition of diversity and inclusion?

JSC: Diversity means having people of diverse backgrounds — cultural, racial, ethnic, economic and other experiences — participate and/or benefit in whatever the activity or community might be. Diversity suggests a wealth of new ideas that enrich and improve our lives. Inclusion means making people feel welcome and valued.

There is an additional dimension to both diversity and inclusion: equity. Equity is vital to diversity and inclusion because it connects to justice. Places, programs and opportunities need to be equally accessible to all, and all participants must have an equal chance of success.

Q: What is the work you do, specifically related to diversity and inclusion?   

JSC: I've worked on a range of programs focused on diversity and inclusion for K-12 teachers and students in Michigan and enlisting  MTU students to help since 2008. As the director of a wholly grant-funded Center established in 1991, I’ve had the opportunity to design my own projects and then seek funding. We focus on environmental and STEM education.

I began increasing our concentration on reaching underrepresented students in 2008 — it’s grown to be a large part of my work. In the past 12 years, we have delivered  programs to Native American students in the Upper Peninsula, and Black and Latinx students in downstate urban areas where there are more people and a great need. We’ve provided dozens of programs for students and teachers in Detroit. 

"We are so lucky to have Joan Schumaker-Chadde, a passionate and successful STEM outreach professional. By 2019, her programs had reached more than 10,000 K-12 students, teachers and community members per year."Audrey Mayer, Michigan Tech Interim Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Diversity Council Chair

Teaching the Teachers

For young people, the opportunity to see someone who looks like you leading and succeeding opens the doors to possibilities. When it comes to recruiting and retaining Black, Indigenous and other people of color into the teaching profession, Chadde says progress has been made, but more needs to be done.

As an example, consider Michigan’s largest city, Detroit — most recent population estimate 667,272 and three times larger than the second-largest city, Grand Rapids. Detroit’s 2014-15 school year demographics were 83% Black, 13% Hispanic, 2% white and 2% other, while Michigan's overall student population is 18% Black. Like the rest of the U.S., the state of Michigan’s teaching force is predominantly composed of white teachers (92%), with the next largest group, Black/African American teachers, comprising only 6% of teachers and all other underrepresented groups (1% or less). In Detroit schools, 82% of the students are Black compared with 67% of teachers.

Q: You work with both educators and students. What’s most rewarding about each? What’s challenging?

JSC: At a virtual meeting just last week, a Detroit public school teacher commented, “Joan Chadde’s workshops and field trips inspired me to start teaching outside the walls of my brick and mortar classroom.” Another Detroit teacher who has participated in several of our environmental education workshops at the Belle Isle Nature Center in Detroit beginning in 2014 has grown immensely professionally, presenting at education conferences and taking on other leadership roles as well attending teacher trainings from Maine to Wyoming. She’s applying to PhD programs — I wrote her a letter of recommendation!

It’s very satisfying to see underrepresented students get excited about outdoor recreation. Some have never had the opportunity to mountain bike, kayak and hike — spending time outdoors can help get them interested in natural resource or engineering careers they’ve never been exposed to before. As a teacher friend says, “We have to get students to love the resource before they will want to protect (steward) it.”  

I work with two Black natural resource professionals from Detroit who come to MTU to mentor high school youth during a week on campus. This is a huge value-added opportunity, as they provide continuity by continuing the mentoring relationship when they return to Detroit. Also, because MTU has few faculty and staff who look like the students, it’s critical for them to have role models that they can relate to.

"I find myself playing the role of facilitator. I am not the best messenger, but I can connect the students to a person they can trust."Joan Schumaker-Chadde 

Last summer, we had an amazing group of 13 high school STEM interns at Michigan Tech who participated in the five-day internships on a wide variety of topics. Many kudos to the faculty, graduate students and departments and colleges who helped to make this possible. On the last day, the students gave short presentations about what they learned. Their grasp of the subjects were sometimes over my head! 

A woman in a polka dot dress with 13 students in summer clothes in front of a fireplace and wood paneling with the Michigan Technological University seal above at a summer STEM workshop
Chadde and the 13 high school STEM interns from across Michigan celebrate after their last-day presentations describing their research and campus experiences. (All story images courtesy Joan Chadde-Schumaker)
"From Detroit to the Western UP, Joan has worked tirelessly to bring opportunities to underserved students and educators in her work directing the Center for Science and Environmental Outreach. The Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative is only one part of her work. She's worked hard to expand learning about Anishinaabe culture, natural resources and history through several LSSI workshops and has secured funding to transport students from L'Anse, Baraga, Watersmeet, Hannahville, etc. to campus for LSSI's Water Festival."
Lloyd Wescoat, K-12 Education Programming, Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative

Q: What are the challenges the programs face?

JSC: It is always challenging to find the necessary funds to do these programs — a lot of grant writing is essential. I am grateful to the many Michigan Tech departments and colleges who provide financial support and cost share when asked. In addition, many of my programs depend upon Michigan Tech faculty to be presenters. MTU faculty were essential in being able to provide five-day STEM internships on campus. It was a big ask, because they had to host the interns. Each department provided $600 per intern to cover rooms, meals and transportation. 

"Joan's passion, creativity and perseverance are clearly demonstrated by the wide variety of programming, audiences, geographic areas and partners she has touched."Beth Lunde, Executive Director, MTU Office of Institutional Equity
a woman standing in a creek kisses a frog and people with nets and sampling buckets are in the background outside in the summer.
Her own love and respect for the environment has guided Chadde's educational outreach mission. "The natural resource career path is the least diverse," she notes. "It's essential to inspire youth to consider careers in water and air quality, forestry, wildlife, fisheries, environmental engineering and more."

Q: You’re also Michigan’s 2020 Informal Science Educator of the Year. I’ve experienced firsthand that you know how to organize an outstanding field trip! What are some of the most interesting excursions you’ve organized for educators? For young people?

JSC:  The most interesting excursions I organized for educators were the five-day traveling summer institutes. I organized at least a half dozen Maritime Transportation Teacher Institutes — every summer from 2006 to 2013. For a few years, I conducted two per summer! I moved the institutes around, from Duluth, Minnesota, to Door County, Wisconsin, to Toledo, Ohio, and the eastern UP. 

"I'd pile 12 teachers in a MTU van and it felt like we were off on vacation!"Joan Schumaker-Chadde

It was all super fun! It’s enjoyable to reflect on these now, but they were a ton of work! I was pretty much a one-person show to keep costs down: making all of the arrangements, planning the itinerary, managing the budget, recruiting the teachers, grading their lessons and writing the grant report. But it was all worth it for the teachers and for me!

Six teachers in hiking gear on Keweenaw Peninsula's Brockway Mountain with a Rock wall behind them.
Natural resources and engineering educators atop the Keweenaw Peninsula's Brockway Mountain.

For young people, I felt the six-day Natural Resource and Engineering Exploration Program (2015-2019) was very worthwhile. I worked with Detroit partners Lisa Perez with the U.S. Forest Service Urban Connections Program and Mike Reed with the Detroit Zoological Society as well as Bruce Ross in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to bring 20 underrepresented high school students to the Upper Peninsula and Michigan Tech to explore STEM career opportunities. Again, it was a lot of work to raise the funds, recruit the students, design the program, invite the presenters and coordinate the program on campus.

"I have always believed in respecting and working to ensure all people's rights to live in an equitable society."Joan Schumaker-Chadde
A Black educator talks with two Black High School students about natural resources careers on the sidewalk next to a late-fall forest in a STEM outreach program focused on the environment
Mike Reed, shown here with Cass Tech students, is a long-time colleague as well as an inspiration for Chadde about the power of connecting young people with mentors who look like them.

Q: What (or who) inspires you to dedicate time to improving diversity and inclusion at Michigan Tech, and across the state and nation?

JSC: Mike Reed, curator of education and informal programs for Detroit Zoological Society (DZS), has been a terrific partner and colleague for more than 10 years. He was the director of the DZS Belle Isle Nature Center when we first met. We’ve hosted more than three dozen teacher workshops there. Mike is a window into the reality that Black people face each day. It is strange (shocking!) to realize that people of color and women are still having to break glass ceilings in the United States in 2020. Mike has helped recruit Black high school students to participate in the six-day Natural Resource and Engineering Career Exploration at MTU for the past five years. He is a super Michigan Tech cheerleader, who has been attending the MTU A-4 (African American Alumni Association) Picnic in Detroit for the past five years at the Detroit Yacht Club. The picnic is attended by African-American alumni, current students and prospective students and their parents. Mike advises that it's important to remember that we’re recruiting parents as much as students. Parents have to feel confident that MTU is a welcoming place for their child.

It’s essential that students can see themselves in engineering and natural resource careers, and feel welcome. Detroit has both the largest number and largest percentage of Black residents in the U.S. I am hopeful that Michigan Tech will have an office in Detroit sooner rather than later to be more visible to parents and students. Many other Michigan Universities have a presence in the D. 

Q: What opportunities does this award open up?

JSC: This award is affirming of the work that I’ve done for the past decade and longer. I am appreciative of Michigan Tech’s acknowledgement and support. I hope this opens some doors and that the publicity spawns some new partners.

About MTU Diversity Initiatives

From student groups to University-wide councils, Michigan Tech is committed to furthering diversity and inclusion. Learn more about the Tech Forward initiative, and review these diversity and inclusion opportunities and programs showcased by the College of Engineering.

Q: Diversity and inclusion are as much a part of the public dialogue as they’ve ever been. We’re at a moment in time when there’s a discernible shift in acknowledging systemic racism and taking action to make permanent change. How can we as a campus community move forward?

JSC: We need more Black, Latinx and Native American students on campus — and they have the same need as the Center for Science and Environmental Outreach —  funding! Incoming students need to receive full scholarships. A college education is a ticket to a better future, but not if it means going into debt in a big way. Students from groups who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education can find it harder to get a job due to systemic racism in the workplace, so for them, pursuing a college degree has the potential to be an even greater financial risk.

Systemic racism is a centuries-old problem that is going to take a long time to fully address. We need to keep working diligently. Many students are the first in their family to attend college. They need support getting to college, staying in college and navigating careers after college. 

Communication is key: Providing programs to help faculty, staff and students look inside themselves and gain a greater understanding of their role in continuing racism is an essential step.

And, finally, it’s also vital to work with our youngest children and provide opportunities for elementary students to have diverse teachers and presenters, and interact with diverse students, so they are comfortable and see it as the norm. Teachers can post diverse faces of scientists, engineers, writers, artists, etc. in their classroom. The message is powerful: Showing a greater variety of people provides more perspectives, creativity and a more effective team to tackle our country and the world’s challenges.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.