Professor Eileen Parsons, Ph.D., a member of the faculty at the UNC School of Education for almost 17 years, is retiring from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Parsons, who earned her bachelor’s degree in science teaching from Carolina and went on to become a faculty member, rising through the academic ranks to full professor, leaves after establishing herself as a leading scholar of science education, particularly around the influence of race and culture on learning in science and mathematics. Her retirement is effective Jan. 31.
“Dr. Parsons is motivated by a steadfast commitment to the pursuit of equity and expanded opportunity for students who too frequently have been neglected by our educational systems, particularly in the realms of science and math education,” said Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, dean of the UNC School of Education. “Her scholarship and her service have contributed to identifying and eroding barriers of entry, work that will help open new possibilities for students for years to come.”
Leadership in STEM equity
Parsons came to Carolina as an undergraduate from North Carolina’s rural Wilkes County, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in science teaching, with a focus on chemistry, in 1989. She earned a master’s degree in science education from Cornell University in 1991, then a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from Cornell in 1994.
After a postdoctoral fellowship with the Ford Foundation and working in several faculty positions, she joined the School of Education in 2005.
Parsons has led a research and service agenda focused on socio-cultural factors, specifically race and culture, on students’ participation and learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — or STEM — courses and programs.
“She has focused on the disparities that exist in the sciences, including STEM and science education, when it comes to women and when it comes to Black and brown people,” said Dana Thompson Dorsey, a former UNC School of Education faculty member who is now director of the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Endowed Chair in Education Innovation at the University of South Florida.
Parsons has investigated practices of educators and school systems in relation to cultural and racial inclusivity and their impact upon Black students in K-12 learning environments, with a focus on middle school early in her career, but later extended to include postsecondary and professional contexts. Later research examined cultural and racial inclusiveness for traditionally underrepresented groups of color in undergraduate STEM pursuits and STEM careers.
Her research appears in top-tier journals inside STEM such as Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education and Journal of Women and Minorities in Science as well in journals outside of STEM such as Journal of Research in Childhood Education and Equity and Excellence in Education.
Service on the national level
Parsons has served in a variety of leadership positions in her field and at the University.
Ron Strauss, UNC-Chapel Hill’s executive vice provost, has worked with Parsons since 2005, including last year as she contributed to work in the Provost’s Office to develop new promotion and tenure pathways for Carolina faculty members.
“Professor Parsons is a high-energy individual who does not come from a position of personal privilege,” Strauss said. “She has energetically sought to achieve excellence with the zest that is found in the rare people who are destined to rise above their circumstances to become world-level ‘movers and shakers.’ She has the kind of intellect, creativity and drive to make her a fine university leader.”
Last year, Parsons was named chair of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s newly created Committee on Equity in PreK-12 STEM Education. The committee will develop a consensus study and write a report on equity in preK-12 STEM education, focusing on science education from early childhood through high school, making recommendations that are expected to inform and influence educational policy.
The National Academies of Sciences (NAS) anticipates that the committee’s report will serve as a touchstone document in the field of preK-12 STEM education as it identifies and describes inequities in science and mathematics education, examines how state-level standards and initiatives can address inequities, review evidence on policy and program interventions that address equity concerns, and develop recommendations for policy, practice, and research to promote success for all students in STEM learning.
Parsons has been active in NAS work in the past, including service as a member of an expert committee that was convened at the request of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Amgen Foundation to examine middle and high school science instruction and provide evidence-based guidance on how to improve it.
Parsons has served in leadership of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, rising to the presidency of NARST in 2021. Parsons has been a member of NARST for 24 years, with service that includes work as a conference coordinator, on various NARST committees and as a member of NARST’s Board of Directors.
In 2020, she was named as Carolina’s inaugural Academic Leadership Advancement Fellow, a position established to help develop the Provost’s Academic Leadership Advancement Program for Underrepresented Faculty.
Parsons has served as a fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, spending a year working at the National Science Foundation, assisting the agency in addressing presidential and congressional mandates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.
She has also worked as a fellow in the American Council on Education Senior Leadership Development Program, serving in administration at Johns Hopkins University.
A principled ‘challenger’
Terrell Morton (’17 Ph.D.), who is now an assistant professor of identity and justice in STEM education at the University of Missouri, was a doctoral advisee of Parsons’s. He credited Parsons’s desire to invest in Black students for being a factor in helping him complete his doctoral studies.
“The breadth and depth of her intellectual expertise in addition to her lens amazed me as a graduate student and continues to amaze me to this day,” Morton said. “I have yet to meet someone who was as thought-provoking as Dr. Parsons.”
Morton continued: “Dr. Parsons is a challenger. She challenges everyone to think about the impact of their positioning, scholarship, and practice. Her desire to see a better world for the future generations coupled with her critical and cultural lens pushes others to ‘see beyond themselves’ when it comes to their research and practice to ensure that the work is robust and sound across multiple critically informed indices.”
Thompson Dorsey said she admired Parsons for being a principled leader.
“She is one who allows herself to be ruled not by power or money or titles or position, but by her faith and her conscience, and her beliefs, and justice and equity,” Thompson Dorsey said. “In academia, and in society, you don’t meet a lot of people like that.”
Another word with Eileen Parsons
Following is a Q&A with Parsons:
Do you have plans for what you will do next?
I am a problem-solver driven by a desire to make life better for the underserved. Even though public opinion on the importance of formal learning has precipitously declined over the years, I remain a staunch believer in the empowerment of an education.
At this stage in my life, I feel a greater urgency; consequently, in my next chapter I seek to serve in roles with direct influence on the levers of change for the purpose of impacting systems, to transform institutions in a manner that make opportunity and a better life equally and equitably accessible to and attainable for the underserved.
Can you summarize what you have learned about the issues/problems of equity in STEM teaching and learning?
A study of public education in America reveals an intentional and concerted effort to create and maintain a tiered system: one providing high-quality education and opportunities to White individuals with economic and other forms of capital and a lower quality tier of education for all others with different strata for different groups.
The system was intentionally engineered to produce disparate outcomes, not only in learning but also in life trajectory, so it will take the same level of intentionality across various levels — classroom, school, district, state, region, and federal — in a concerted coordinated way for an extended time to transform it to reflect the best of American ideals.
I’ve learned two difficult and poignant lessons over my career. First, “change one life at a time,” a mantra that guided much of my life, is insufficient in isolation of a systems perspective and often is a roadblock to substantive and sustainable progress. Second, equity and equality are matters of degree, not all-or-none propositions. Unfortunately, many with the power and authority to usher in systemic change who profess a commitment to equity and equality are content with the minimum and the tolerable for the underserved rather than what is warranted and necessary.
Balancing the realism — the bleakness of what exists — and the optimism — the fulfilled promise, though intermittent spurts of progress followed by retrenchment, shown throughout U.S. history that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice” — is a constant struggle, one I must continuously strike to productively engage this work with mercy and grace.
What do you think were your most significant contributions to the research?
I was among the cadre of researchers in science education who changed the way the community conceptualized culture and communicated about it. My work facilitated the shift from a deficit positioning of students’ cultures that encouraged educators to fix learners to students’ cultures situated as assets, valuable resources instrumental in teaching and learning science.
Additionally, my research, in concert with the work of a few others, carved out a space in science education for investigating race and racism, not a small feat in a field where universalism, neutrality, and objectivity are sacred principles and the critical analysis of the previously mentioned, from a perspective of power and dominance, is situated by some as a form of heresy.
What avenues of research need to be pursued in the area going forward?
A singular focus on isolated elements — such as individual students, individual teachers, individual classrooms, individual schools — dominates research on equity and equality in science education. The persistence of inequity and inequality in science education from one generation to the next and its propensity to expand to include emergent groups — for example, transgender learners — signify the need for a more expansive approach, a coordinated effort among the science education research community to investigate systems.