In a bid to bring black students to science, this high school will offer Africentric math

The Grade 10 course will begin this fall at Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbour, N.S. It will incorporate cultural discussions and is aimed at encouraging black students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

'We need to try to do something different,' says Auburn Drive High School principal Karen Hudson

Black students at Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbour will be the first in Nova Scotia to take a new Africentric math course, beginning in September. (Halifax Regional School Board/YouTube)

The thought of one day teaching science at one of Canada's largest universities never crossed Kevin Hewitt's mind.

Early on, white teachers in Toronto's public school system steered Hewitt, who is black and immigrated as a child from the Caribbean in 1978, into non-academic math. They tried to dash his mother's plans for him to become a medical doctor.

He credits his mother's persistence, advocacy and belief that he was highly capable with helping him land where is now — an associate professor of physics at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"I never thought as an immigrant, and not seeing other African-Canadians in physics throughout my whole time, that I would be here today," he said in an interview.

That experience is in part why he is applauding a decision by Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbour to become the first high school in Nova Scotia to offer an Africentric math course, beginning this September.

Teachers will incorporate discussions about the students' cultural backgrounds, history and their lived experiences while teaching them about everything from measurements, surface area and linear equations through an Africentric lens.

Kevin Hewitt is an associate professor in physics at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Submitted by Kevin Hewitt)

The aim is to encourage Grade 10 black students to take advanced math and to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The school will work with local universities and specifically with Imhotep's Legacy Academy, an outreach program at Dalhousie that Hewitt helped start and which encourages black junior high and high school students to consider careers in the STEM fields.

"It's academic math but we want to build their self-confidence, their self-awareness so they can feel that they're capable of doing the math," Auburn principal Karen Hudson said in an interview.

"And the way to do that is we got to make sure that they become critical thinkers and that they engage in the process, that they own it."

Auburn has a large population of black students. The conversation about the course started about a year ago after Hudson and others noticed that many were not taking higher level math. 

"And so we said we need to try to do something different because we know that what we were doing was not working," she said.

Auburn Drive High School principal Karen Hudson says a new Africentric math course at the school will build black students' self confidence and help them become critical thinkers. (Submitted by Karen Hudson)

Of the 30 seats available, 23 students have signed up to take the course.

"I think it's necessary," Hewitt said, "because often we find ourselves alone in the classroom and that sort of isolation sort of makes one feel, without role models in front of you, that you can't achieve, especially in the STEM subjects."

School curriculum needs to better reflect the positive contributions of black communities, Hudson said, and part of the course will be to expose students to black professionals in the various STEM fields.

An example in the Imhotep's program of bringing African culture into math is using the Egyptian pyramids to teach trigonometry.

Students will be exposed to black professionals in the STEM fields. (Halifax Regional School Board/YouTube)

Hewitt moved to Canada from the island of St. Vincent when he was 10 years old. He said his family's first encounter with the school system wasn't good.

His education in the Caribbean wasn't valued and it was determined he should be put back a grade. In St. Vincent he had skipped a grade.

"Throughout my time in Toronto, at junior high and high school, there was always an effort to stream African-Canadian kids into sort of the remedial math or remedial science subjects that wouldn't allow the student to go on to STEM fields," Hewitt said.

His mother, however, was a strong advocate.

"As an immigrant to this country her focus was on ensuring that we had quality education, that we took advantage of that education and that no one streamed us anywhere but into the subjects that would lead to STEM fields."

His mother was raising four children alone. Her efforts paid off. 

Hewitt first went to the University of Toronto to study biology. It was there that he fell in love with physics simply because understanding the subject was relatively easy for him.

He later earned his doctorate, and in 2001 it was like a dream come true — he got a faculty position at Dalhousie University.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley

Reporter

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca