Published: May 2, 2024 By

Jessica Rush Leeker has been awarded a prestigious fellowship to research the impact of oral storytelling on African descendants in STEM, focusing on how historical and cultural narratives can enhance the sense of identity, belonging, and confidence among engineering students. Leeker is the faculty director of undergraduate education and ESCEND and the Stephen M. Dunn Professor of Engineering Management and Entrepreneurship in the Lockheed Martin Engineering Management Program.

Jessica Rush Leeker standing near ocean

Jessica Rush Leeker

Starting in July 2024, Leeker will embark on a two-year tenure as a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA), where she will conduct research on the impact of oral storytelling in STEM education, mentor interdisciplinary engineering students, and deliver lectures at various institutions across Brazil. Leeker also aims to foster lasting collaborations between CU Boulder and UFBA, potentially extending to other Brazilian educational entities, including student and faculty exchange programs.

A real-life, intergenerational project

For Leeker, the Fulbright award presents an invaluable opportunity to expand upon her innovative research on the role of oral storytelling in STEM education, particularly among African descendants. Her project will explore how narrative traditions can empower students by connecting them with their historical and cultural roots, fostering a stronger sense of identity and resilience in STEM fields.

Leeker's research will capture and analyze the oral histories shared by elders within the African-descendant community, focusing on their contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This qualitative approach aims to uncover how these narratives influence young students' perceptions of their capabilities and potential careers in STEM.

By integrating these stories into the educational model, Leeker seeks to challenge existing deficit-based educational frameworks and replace them with asset-based approaches that highlight the cultural wealth of students.

“I plan to develop educational tools and frameworks that can be replicated beyond UFBA, enhancing the broader educational landscape by incorporating these rich historical narratives into STEM education,” Leeker said. “This will not only benefit students at UFBA but also create a model that can be adapted and used in other contexts, transforming how underrepresented students engage with STEM globally.”

Leeker believes that by reconnecting African-descendant students with their ancestral legacies of innovation and problem-solving, her research can significantly contribute to increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM fields. Her goal is to build bridges between generations, linking personal and communal histories with contemporary educational and professional opportunities in STEM. This approach is expected to enrich the academic and personal development of students, thereby broadening participation and success rates among minorities in STEM disciplines.

“I want to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists who are grounded in their history and confident in their future contributions,” Leeker said. “The Fulbright scholarship is more than just a research opportunity; it's a chance to make a lasting impact on the educational experiences of African descendants in STEM, both in Brazil and internationally.”