“Beyond my expectations,” said Gray.
In a way, the word “expectations” defines so much about Gray and her approach to teaching, research, and community engagement. On the first day of every class she teaches at UAB, she displays a slide to all of her students that says, “Every Student Reading This Slide Is Smart.” According to Gray, it’s a message that some students might be hearing for the first time.
“That statement is not up for debate,” said Gray. “Now, learning behavior is debatable, though.”
Gray’s vision for her students is informed by years of research on metacognition. “It’s teaching the idea of the process of thinking about any concept,” said Gray. For Gray, metacognition is something students can embed into their everyday behavior.
And she’s not limiting her metacognition strategies and pedagogy to college students, either. Gray visits high schools across the state to promote STEM disciplines, do science with students, and discuss the transition to college – especially for first-generation college students. She emphasizes exposure and encourages students to adopt a more inclusive and diverse view of scientists.
“I want to be more visible,” said Gray.
Although much of her focus has been engaging high school juniors and seniors, she is now visiting elementary schools and connecting with younger students. “I started asking myself, ‘How can I reach students before they reach me?” said Gray.
While participating in a career day at an elementary school, Gray felt a slight tug on her lab coat. She looked down and saw a young girl.
“The student asked, ‘You’re a scientist?’” said Gray. “I told her, ‘Yes.’ The little girl continued to look at me and she said, ‘But you’re a girl. And you’re black.’ I went to my car and cried for 30 minutes,” said Gray.
Powerful moments like this inspired Gray to reflect on her experiences and the various barriers she faced throughout her academic journey, which is why she is so passionate about connecting with students from elementary, middle, and high schools and standing alongside them as they navigate similar challenges. Along with her research and teaching, Gray has also co-founded a nonprofit organization called Our Firm Foundation, which provides courses on social emotional learning (SEL), STEM, and career mentoring to families in Birmingham City Schools.
KaRita Sullen, an educational technology instructor at Oxmoor Valley Elementary School, has hosted Gray in her classroom and seen the impact of her work first-hand. “Dr. Gray was always the first to commit to presenting fun, hands-on, educational activities for our students during our STEAM celebrations,” said Sullen. “She was eager to come out and always made sure she had enough supplies and materials for every student. Both years, her activities were a hit!”
Moving forward, Gray will continue to engage with schools across Alabama, and, in the near future, she aims to publish an article on the impact and outcomes of her metacognition strategies. “My pedagogy has an interesting name,” said Gray. “It’s called ‘Grandma’s Recipe for Accountable Learning and Time Management.’”