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Gov. Ron DeSantis has faced criticism over his decision to reject an Advanced Placement course on African American studies to be taught in Florida high schools. February is Black History Month, and we asked educators, historians, and community members to weigh in on why teaching the full scope of history is more important than ever. We’re sharing what they had to say, in their own words.

Her calling is teaching science and the African-American innovators whose stories are little known

Olympia Baylou wears jewelry she bought in Africa and a mustard colored shirt as she sits near a microphone in the Sarasota WUSF studio
Kerry Sheridan
/
WUSF Public Media
Olympia Baylou says she loves teaching and learning about African-American scientists whose contributions have long been overlooked.

Olympia Baylou had a successful career in finance for many years before she switched to teaching middle school full time.

During Black History Month, WUSF is telling the stories of teachers and community members, in their own words, describing why the subject matter is important to them.

Today we hear from a middle school science teacher in Palmetto, who says telling the stories of forgotten Black scientists is her focus.

"I'm Olympia Baylou. I'm a middle school science teacher. I'm 56. I don't mind saying that. So I came up in the '70s. In elementary and middle school, we learned about the history of some African Americans. But there wasn't a lot of history about African Americans who were in science. So we had, of course, George Washington Carver, who was a famous African American scientist. But most of the scientists that we learned about were the scientists that most people see like Albert Einstein, of course, also Isaac Newton, and that whole range of white scientists. So never did it see any real representation of African American scientists or any other people of color.

"The question in my mind was, are African Americans intelligent enough to be inventors? You know, scientists? Are we? And that's how I felt, because there wasn't that representation.

"And as I started to dig, and find out about different scientists, I found out, oh, my gosh, there are so many African Americans that made huge contributions to science.

"Mary Jackson, and also Katherine G. Johnson, they were a part of the group of women that was featured in the movie Hidden Figures. They were known as human calculators. And so my students, when we were reading their bios, they couldn't believe it. They didn't have all the fancy calculators that we have now. These women were responsible for calculating, being very precise. When you think about astronauts going into outer space? Okay, great. They're out there. But how do we get them back now safely?

"And I'm going to ask that everyone go research Alice Ball, because she was absolutely brilliant. She basically found a method in applying certain topical ointments, made them water soluble, where they can be injected. That was a huge impact in the early 1920s as far as treating leprosy in Hawaii.

"Her method, of course, was stolen by someone else, a white man. And it wasn't until years later that her method, she received credit for that, she received recognition for it.

"It's interesting that now that I'm teaching science, I feel like I really have to bring to the forefront all the significant contributions that African-Americans made in science.

"So this month is Black History Month and a part of my lesson plans have been to incorporate daily a biography on an African American in science. And I share that out to all of the teachers, the staff at the school and I had many of them come up to me and they are wowed because they did not know the history."

Here is the list of prominent science and math innovators that Baylou has shared with her students:

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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