Chiamaka Agbasi-Porter: Inspiring futures in STEM

Each July, when Chiamaka Agbasi-Porter welcomes a new group of high school seniors to MIT Lincoln Laboratory's two-week residential radar program, she starts with a question: Who here is applying to MIT?

Only about half raise their hands. Some tell her they don’t feel smart enough for MIT.

"I see myself right at that age," says Porter, Lincoln Laboratory’s K–12 STEM outreach coordinator. "So, I tell them a little bit of my story. I always begin with, 'I was just like you.'"

Porter was once a high schooler who loved math and science. She yearned to improve her skills. But she was also extremely shy and self-doubting. She struggled to ask teachers for help finding extra ways to learn.

"I didn't know how to navigate the system then to find opportunities," says Porter, who nevertheless went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry. "As I entered my field, I started thinking about all the students who don't know where to start."

Reaching these students has become her life's passion. Over more than a decade at the laboratory, Porter has cultivated an educational ecosystem that impacts hundreds of students every year. Her programs open possibilities for kids who may not otherwise have the resources to pursue STEM interests. And she embodies what she once looked for as a young student: an advocate for underserved kids, a kind and passionate educator, and a selfless mentor.

Rising to the challenge  

STEM learning is an educational philosophy that connects the dots between the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The more than 20 programs that Porter coordinates transform lessons into fun, hands-on challenges. Students hack code, program mini autonomous cars, build circuits, and engineer tiny satellites.

When Porter was hired at the laboratory in 2010, hardly any formalized STEM outreach programs existed. Her first goals were to build bonds with schools in underserved areas around Boston and recruit laboratory technical staff who could help bring programs to life.  

“My day-to-day is forming relationships. Our technical staff are not allowed to do outreach as part of their job, so I spent a lot of energy finding staff willing to devote time outside of work,” she says.

Soon, she built a team for her first program: Lincoln Laboratory Radar Introduction for Student Engineers (LLRISE). During this free, two-week, residential summer workshop at the laboratory, 18 rising high school seniors build a functioning radar from scratch, design their own experiments, and present their results to the community.

Like all of the lab's programs, LLRISE encourages applications from those who are demographically underrepresented in STEM — including women, African Americans, Latin Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans — or come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Porter connects with organizations that can help her reach these students.

Many participants consider LLRISE a life-changing experience. Mckenzie Ferrari describes it as an engineering experience she could never have received at her low-income school and says it was instrumental in her decision to pursue a STEM career. Now a college junior pursuing degrees in physics and secondary education, she has returned to LLRISE twice as a teaching assistant. Inspired by Porter, she coordinates outreach programs between her physics department and local high schools.

"Chiamaka is the one who I believe has had the greatest impact on my life," Ferrari says. "Without her positivity and incredible efforts, I would not be the person I am today. The work she leads is instrumental in the lives of many young students."

Closing the achievement gap 

When students complete a program, it's often just the start of Porter's mentorship. "They leave knowing they have a support system," Porter says. Her support comes in many forms — connecting students to internships, writing college recommendations, helping them look for employment, or just being someone to talk to.

"The main goal is to enable students to pursue STEM careers," Porter says, adding that a major part of that is helping minority students persist through college. Studies show that Black and Latino students who declare a STEM major tend to switch majors or leave college in higher numbers than their white peers. "Not enough students are graduating in engineering. I always feel like we're not doing enough. I think if we can continue providing opportunities, and Lincoln Laboratory is well-positioned to do that, then we'll see completion increase for underrepresented minorities."

Jamal Grant can attest to Porter's impact. They met in 2007 when he was a ninth grader at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, where Porter worked as a robotics mentor. It was at her urging that Grant got involved in robotics programs, influencing his decision to major in engineering. When he was in college, Porter invited Grant to visit the laboratory.

"She not only sparked my interest in engineering but also made me feel like I could actually be an engineer. She introduced me to Black engineers, so many brilliant people who opened my eyes up to possibilities," Grant says. He landed an internship in the laboratory's Engineering Division and soon after graduation was hired as a full-time staff member. 

But more than the connections she helped forge, Porter also had a "palpable impact on my life in a moral sense," Grant says, inspiring him to pay it forward. He is now pursuing dual MBA/MPA degrees at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the MIT Sloan School of Management and has founded the Net Mentoring Group, a nonprofit whose mission is to help close the STEM achievement gap for inner-city, minority students.

Celebrating impact

For Porter's contributions to STEM learning, MIT recently honored her among this year's five recipients of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards. The awards recognize MIT members who embody the "spirit of community" and Dr. King's work.

Colleagues were thrilled to learn about her recognition. "Chiamaka is a selfless leader, mentor, and contributor. She is deeply committed to creating new opportunities that enhance K–12 STEM education for our next generation and developing impactful programs that reach across the nation," says Mabel Ramirez, a technical group leader at the laboratory and an outreach volunteer. "Her kind human spirit, selflessness, inclusiveness, and dedication are admirable and very much deserving of this recognition."

John Kuconis, a former executive officer at Lincoln Laboratory, nominated her. "She’s a person who will do things for other people and never seek any recognition for it,” he said during the awards ceremony on Feb. 10. 

As for the future of STEM education, Porter's always thinking of how to do more. Over the past few years, her team has expanded LLRISE to universities in Puerto Rico and has taught teachers the curriculum so that they can bring the program back to their schools. She's focusing on how to reach other demographics who may not have access to STEM opportunities, such as military dependents who change schools often. At the laboratory, she continues to build friendships with staff members, who help her dream up new ideas. Soon, she'll be reading through hundreds of applications for this summer's LLRISE.

On the last day of LLRISE, Porter always asks her students the same question as she does on day one.

This time around, with no hesitation, 90 percent of hands go up. "It is meaningful to me that they leave more confident than they were when they came in," she says, smiling. "I am so proud and so encouraged."