By: Dr. Rachel Slaughter

When we think of images of nerds and the culture that the group is immersed in, we conjure up images like the characters on “The Big Bang Theory” starring Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki as mega-geeks and roommate physicists Sheldon and Leonard. These fictional characters often remind Americans of their fascination with real-life nerds we love and sometimes love to hate like Alfred Matthew, an American singer and actor, who created the persona “Weird Al” Yankovic. Funny thing, however, we rarely see representations of Black characters who are nerds or nerdy.

   “Weird Al” Yankovic’s song “White and Nerdy,” which debuted in 2006, satirized the “White nerd” helping us publicly poke fun at a group “cool” Black people have been privately snickering over for years. But, African Americans know the Black nerd very well. In every Black family or community, there is the boy or girl whose eccentric and idiosyncratic behavior shouts “outcast.”

   Hoping to disrupt and diversify the nerd image, William Bickley and Michael Warren of Bickley-Warren Productions introduced America to ABC/CBS sitcom Family Matters, Steven Quincy Urkel. Jaleel White who portrayed Urkel became a breakout star that popularized “Black nerdy” and intrigued Black America.

   Each month “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym Q.U.I.L.T., Slaughter offers readers information about the Quality of writing, Universal theme, and Imaginative plot, as well as a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise. This month, a YA Lit book that takes us on a journey to Space Camp where we learn about the amazing Black astronauts and physicists, is the focus of this month’s reading quilt.

Dr. Doresa A. Jennings 
A prolific writer of young adult books, Dr. Jennings is a veteran college professor of over two decades. An advocate of STEAM education and champion for young scientists, she worked for the federal government, and some of her time was spent working for NASA.  It was her time with NASA that sparked her inspiration for “The STEAM Chasers” book series that introduces young readers to Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math and the contributions Black Americans have made to those fields. With the help of this series, dedicated to fictional characters who delight in the exploration of space and STEAM adventures, Dr. Jennings hopes to earn budding middle school scientists, sometimes called nerds, cool points. In other words, STEAM is the epitome of cool.

QUALITY: “The STEAM Chasers” series begins with a book titled The Steam Chasers: We Made That (Doresa Ayana Publications). This is where readers meet Shar, Terrence, Ebony, Akiya, Marcus, and Chase while on a scavenger hunt to discover the major contributions Black Americans have made in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math industries. 

 UNIVERSAL THEME: Using fun and playful characters who delight readers with their witty repartee, Dr. Jennings offers “The STEAM Chasers” as a group of African American teens and friends who are comfortable and proud of their STEAM interests and pursuits. These young people are proud of their “geeky” love of all things STEAM. With supportive adults in their lives, and scientists as role models, these adolescent prodigies are on a quest to uplift, celebrate, and imitate Black scientists and their contributions to America. Dr. Jennings says, “When a child discovers someone else has done it, they don’t just think they can do it too, they think they can do it better.”

 IMAGINATIVE STORY:  “The STEAM Chasers” group is captivating, yet familiar with their personalities that mirror those we see in the middle school classroom. Shar, a major character and lover of all things chem, is fearless and offers a bevy of inventors and great thinkers that the characters can emulate. Terrence, the quiet voice of reason, is the environmentalist and mechanical engineer. Ebony, a deep thinker, is a budding astronomer and astrophysicist who dazzles her friends with Greek and Roman mythological figures who received prominent places among the stars as a memorial of their deeds. Akiya, the “Google girl” and bibliophile, sports a photographic memory. Marcus, AKA “Lightning,” is a drone enthusiast and techie. His cousin Chase, or “Thunder” is the computer genius.  The group finds itself in the middle of tons of adventures including time at Space Camp in The STEAM Chasers: The Blackness of Space  (Doresa Ayana Publications), the second book in the series.

 LESSON PLAN:  In 2020, Dr. Jennings created “Doresa Ayanna Publications,” and The STEAM Chasers group which is the perfect vehicle to feed young people the biographies, research, and inventions of amazing “little known” Black scientists who are often excluded from textbooks. Dr. Jennings says of her journey into the publishing and writing industry, “it was born out of a frustration with the sparse authentic representation of Black American youth in middle-grade fiction. With this gentle, yet powerful, time of growth and maturity, when tweens are beginning to find their own way and seek out their own voice.” In The STEAM Chasers: The Blackness of Space, the second book in the series, Dr. Jennings peppers in the story and the mini bios of ten Black scientists who have impacted the lives of Americans. These heroes include people like Dr. Patricia Cowings, aerospace psychophysiologist and the first American woman to be trained as a scientist-astronaut by NASA. The first African-American woman to complete her Ph.D. in Astrophysics at Yale in 2014, Dr. Jedidah Isler is an American astrophysicist, educator, and active advocate for diversity in STEM. Annie J. Easley, an American computer scientist, mathematician, and rocket scientist, worked for the Lewis Research Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

TALKING POINTS:  In The STEAM Chasers: The Blackness of Space, Shar, Terrence, Ebony, Akiya, Marcus, and Chase are friends who bond over STEAM. These fictional characters exemplify the idea that personal success often depends on your circle of friends. Do you believe this is true?

  1. How would you describe your friend group?
  2. Do you and your friends share the same interests?
  3. In what ways does each of your friends inspire you?
  4. Is there a member of your friend group that you think isn’t a positive influence on you and your future?

Dr. R. A. Slaughter’s (Doc) textbooks Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature, and Turning the Page: A Guide to Securing Multicultural Literature for Schools, both published by Rowman & Littlefield and available in all bookstores, have brought Doc international recognition. For more information, log onto