According to Dr. Carlotta A. Berry, she's nearly a one-of-a-kind in her field. In her experience, meeting Black STEM colleagues in academia doesn't happen very often.
Berry, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, puts it this way: "We are such unicorns and there are so few of us." She began her academic career as an assistant professor in the Division of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tennessee State University in 2003, bringing her to over 20 years as a professor.
She holds the Lawrence J. Giacoletto Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rose-Hulman and serves as the co-director of the program's robotics minor. Berry is also the co-founder of Black in Engineering and Black in Robotics, both of which focus on the experiences of Black people in STEM fields.
Berry also started her own educational consulting firm, NoireSTEMinist LLC, in July 2021 to encourage and support women and people of color interested in STEM fields to pursue higher education and professions.
A consistent theme in Berry's work is challenging stereotypes about the types of people who excel in STEM fields.
“One of the main reasons I talk about my work and the theory behind it is to dispel the myth that only extreme nerds can appreciate it. Not everyone needs to be a MacGyver. The situation is not unique to Dilbert. There's more than just Sheldon involved,” Berry says, insisting that "anyone can do this."
“By being open and honest in my interactions with others, I am influencing their perceptions of what it means to be a scientist, a technologist, or an engineer, as well as the people they can relate to in these fields. Nothing must happen in a specific way.”
As part of NoireSTEMinist, Berry uses non-conventional methods of education to reach her target demographic. Helping her daughter with her homework inspired her to start a YouTube series called "Kitchen Table Circuits," in which she uses common kitchen items to demonstrate electrical engineering fundamentals to middle school kids.
“My daughter is now a high school sophomore, and she learned about simple circuits in class.” Berry adds, "She was stating she didn't know the difference between a series and a parallel. So I got out some toy knives and spoons and showed her how it was done," I said.
She explains, "one of the things is figuring out ways to communicate electrical ideas, which may be tough to understand if I start bringing out the mathematics and all that. But if I could just grab something around my house and help you establish those connections, that offers you an entrance point beyond the one that we generally have."
There are presently four episodes of "Robot Slam Poetry," a project Berry created in which she raps and performs poetry about issues in robotics.
“Ultimately, I'm being ridiculous but I'm teaching something as well," Berry explains. “You'll learn something if you watch that one or two-minute film in which I recite poetry and other such nonsense. Furthermore, I believe that incorporating the arts within the STEM movement is an essential component of the current initiative.”
Berry's most recent effort is also her most original. She claims that viewers aren't exposed to depictions of Black women working in STEM fields. She creates romance books whose protagonists are Black women working in STEM fields in an effort to mainstream such representation.
As of July 1, Elevated Inferno, Berry's debut work of fiction, was available for purchase. She claims that more romance novels are on the way, as she is now working on the sequel to her first. She argues that the purpose of such media is not to demystify STEM but to show the everyday lives of people of African descent who are working in these fields.
Berry calls herself "multidisciplinary" and "intersectional," highlighting the fact that her identities as a woman, a Black person, an engineer, a scholar, and a professor are all interconnected.
What makes Berry unique is the way her many identities overlap. “You can't say, 'Today I'm functioning as a professor,' because I can't. When I'm in the classroom, I give it my all. My kids need to know who I am and what I've been through so that I can connect with them as a teacher. As a teacher, I have an obligation to address the possibility of bias and discrimination in the classroom when discussing artificial intelligence and robots. In my experience as a teacher of engineering design, I have found that a diverse classroom is a more effective classroom. Because less-diverse student groups produce less-impactful, less-relevant, etc. solutions.”
Berry has a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in electrical and computer engineering, an M.S. in electrical engineering and control systems from Wayne State University, a B.S. in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a B.S. in mathematics from Spelman College.
Calling herself a "Black girl nerd," she keeps working to increase diversity in the STEM fields. In her view, everyone has a stake in this. Berry argues that "diversity is everyone's responsibility."
“Further, there isn't just one approach to increasing representation in STEM; there are several. We must use our ingenuity and always seek new approaches to engineering that better represent the realities of our lives. The engineering professor should reflect the diversity of the students they teach if they are to be successful in preparing them to design processes and solutions for a multicultural and multiethnic environment,” says Berry.