Former NASA engineer works to expose students of color to Black history, STEM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Years ago, when Frank Robinson Jr. took a look at his daughter’s fourth-grade history book, he immediately noticed some glaring omissions.

“The only thing that (it) said about Black history was that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. And it had a little blurb about George Washington Carver. And Martin Luther King was one page,” Robinson said.

As a NASA engineer and a student of Black history, Robinson knew that the contributions of Black Americans were far greater than what he saw in the 300-page book. So he took matters into his own hands.

The school let him give a presentation at his daughter’s school, and he told the students about Lewis Latimer, a Black inventor who improved the modern lightbulb and contributed to the invention of the first telephone. He also told stories about the courage of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Mae Jemison, the first Black female astronaut to go into space.

“Many different people who have done things technically in our society that have to do with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math),” Robinson said. “That’s what I would want people to know is that our Black history is not dancing and throwing a ball. We love our sports, love our entertainers, but that is not the only contribution that we have. We have made many significant strides as a people.”

Robinson has been an important part of Black history in America, too.

After watching the space race as a child growing up in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Robinson was inspired by Dr. Julian Earls, a Black American physicist who worked for NASA for over 40 years.

“He came to speak to my brother’s graduating class, and I happened to be there. And this man spoke with such articulation and confidence. And he was an impeccable dresser and everything was so neat and in order, and I just never imagined being someone like him, but I aspired to be him,” Robinson said.

Robinson went on to work at NASA for 35 years and held top positions, like chief of the Risk Management Office and the on-site director for the NASA Assurance Technology Center. He was also the project manager for the Thermal Energy Storage Reflight Experiment 2, which was launched on the Endeavor Shuttle in January 1996.

But often at meetings, Robinson said, he was the only person of color in the room. Now he is trying to change that by working with Jacksonville students in the Stem2Hub program.

“I was able to join them because we had a lot of shared interests,” Robinson said. “Their goal was to reduce the achievement gap, especially between underrepresented and underserved minorities in the community.”

Robinson said the key is to meet the students where they are.

“A lot of times, our children are not that excited about STEM. So what they are excited about are things like video games. And so we found a way to introduce them to learn in STEM with things like video game technology,” he said. “We use, FIRST LEGO League robotics, we use drones, we use coding. So all of these things are things that we found that the kids really liked because it’s an atmosphere where they might compete and it looks like a sporting event.”

He has worked with Northeast Florida groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs, Best Academy and the Girl Scouts.

Robinson hopes many more students of color will go on to write a new chapter of Black history that will show up in textbooks one day.

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