Eileen Parsons

Eileen Parsons is a professor of science education within the UNC School of Education and the president-elect of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. Her research investigates and critiques racial and cultural inequalities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to improve access to STEM opportunities.

Eileen Parsonsphoto by Alyssa LaFaro
February 27th, 2019

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I grew up in one of the poorest regions in North Carolina, with hardworking parents doing low-paying manual labor jobs to make ends meet and provide for their six children. This environment was not always conducive to envisioning what existed beyond our day-to-day realities. Some educators in my life inspired and helped me to dream above the current circumstances. Consequently, on the days I believed anything was possible, I wanted to become a teacher. On days I needed to be pragmatic about the financial accessibility of higher education, I wanted to serve in the U.S. Air Force. The day the recruiter presented the forms for me to sign for enlisting in the military, my high school guidance counselor received notification that UNC selected me to receive the Joseph E. Pogue Scholarship. In that moment, my life trajectory changed.


“STEMming racial inequalities and inequities.”

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

There was not one pivotal moment. This took me several years to figure out. There are people who believe that STEM is a domain more suited for select groups and act to exclude other groups, those who are complicit through inaction, and then the well-intentioned others whose uncritical acts inevitably contribute to exclusion, inequalities, and inequities. These disconcerting patterns served as a major driver to specialize in and educate others on such topics.

Parsons skydives over The Piedmont region, near Charlotte.

Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

On occasion, I have been excluded from engagements and deliberations for speaking truths about racial inequalities and inequities in an effort to facilitate positive change. This is a recurring problem in my research area. Each recurrence, which is more often than I prefer, requires me to act in nuanced ways — ways that are responsive to a multitude of social, political, and individual factors.

What are your passions outside of research?

Helping build homes as a part of Habitat for Humanity, serving others in the local soup kitchen, and engaging in other opportunities to give back, feed my spirit, and keep me grounded — all important elements of my Christian faith. I also love the occasional escapade that far exceeds my comfort zone like skydiving, which at times, is vexing to my husband.

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