Giving Baby Bison the ‘Tools of the Universe’
Howard University has produced some of the greatest names in STEM, many of them the first African Americans to achieve these feats. From the famed Kenneth Clark (B.A. ’35; M.A. ’36) and Mamie Clark (B.S. ’38; M.A. ’39) to Patricia Bath (M.D. ’68), the first Black female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention, the list goes on and on.
Another such great in the STEM field, Harley Flack Sr., worked his way to become the founding dean and professor at the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences. One of his sons, Christopher Flack (B.A., ’95) worked in D.C. government and had a hand in converting the Ecology building on Howard’s campus to what is now the Howard University Middle School of Math and Science, more commonly known as (MS)2. Christopher Flack’s son, Malachi, recently finished 8th grade at the middle school, and his family expects “great things” from the third-generation Flack.
“I always love the fact that, when they came up with the concept of the charter school, math and science were put out front as key to their curriculum,” Christopher Flack said. “Of course, when it came time for Malachi to complete 8th grade, we sent him to the charter school. I guess the legacy had come full circle from my father to Malachi.”
Howard alumni around the world are creating lineages of brilliant minds, and in a world where careers in STEM fields are increasingly in demand, industry leaders and policymakers have been calling for improvements in K-12 math and science education as well as an increase in production of STEM undergrads over the last few years.
Cheri Philip (B.S. ’00) and Romaneio Golphin Sr., who attended Howard University for a year, have gone above and beyond in answering that call in their own way. They posted a video that went viral a few years back that showed their 2-year-old son, Romanieo Jr., answering questions about chemistry and physics while eating his Cheerios. The video was created in part to demonstrate some of the learning tools they’ve utilized to cultivate the nurturing learning environment that viewers saw Romanieo Jr. flourishing in at such a young age.
“We early on saw that he was very curious about the world around him, as every child is,” Philip said. “It’s not so much that Romanieo Jr. is so unique and exceptional as many have often asked or said of him, it’s really about the amount of time we put into understanding where he is and where he can go because of his interests.”
Philip and Golphin noticed that when Romanieo Jr. was an infant, he took an interest in how things spun. He would spin the rings from his ring-stacking game rather than stack them, and he was curious about the vortex that formed as the tub drained during bath time.
“We’re strong advocates in the idea that all children are born to answer something in the universe; it’s a matter of listening,” Golphin said. “Many parents, we see it. It’s just a matter of knowing what to do to cultivate that.”
Now 7 years old, Romanieo Jr. reads at a college level and has an advanced understanding of chemistry and physics. He also is musically advanced in that he can distinguish pitches in bird’s songs and identify the notes played in a chord.
“A lot of his scientific references are concepts that match his everyday life,” Golphin said. “It’s like having a research partner because the things that you tell him one day or one week, he’ll bring that back to you in another week or so—or sometimes in a month—with a lot more depth to it. As parents, he’s raised our bar tremendously.”
Romanieo Jr. has been homeschooled by his parents his entire life. Philip said she and Golphin had discussions early on about schooling him traditionally, as the D.C. metro area where they live is home to many nationally ranked schools. She noted, however, that many professional men and women expressed regrets that they were not there during that critical time in their child’s life, especially in a society where both parents often are working and the parent is “in the backseat.”
“We just decided that we would make the sacrifice to figure out how we could do it,” Philip said. “Parents are their child’s first teacher, so we just have continued that, built upon his interests.”
Homeschooling has involved a lot of additional learning for both parents: Philip has a doctorate in psychology and Golphin has a musical background. Even with their knowledge of science, they had to learn to make complex concepts digestible for young Romanieo. Both parents said that a lot of what they’ve taught Romanieo Jr. has involved simply applying principles of chemistry and physics to the world around him, like explaining what water is. There was no “baby talk” in their household, and their son stuck with the proper English he learned early on.
They essentially introduced these concepts early on, in the way children generally are introduced to the alphabet.
“There is a way that, when you understand the particular needs of your student, you can do a better job of understanding where they have gaps or where they are excelling and can be challenged more. In a classroom of 30 children, a teacher’s not able to give that same curated experience,” Philip said.
Philip and Golphin frame their teaching philosophy with a more inclusive version of STEM that they have dubbed TEAM3S: Technology, Engineering, Arts, Meditation, Mathematics, Music and Science. This method incorporates how these areas of study work together and does not treat them as distinctively separate subjects, as often seen in traditional schooling.
“I think the strength of our approach has been drawing the connections between engineering and arts, drawing or chemistry and cooking,” Philip said. “If you teach all those things early, you have a much more educated citizenry and that makes society better in general.”
“We never tell him that something is difficult. We never tell him that something is once in a lifetime, so he approaches everything as though it’s possible, feasible,” Golphin said.
The family is currently working on a Web series starring Romaneio Jr. called “The Art and Science of the Everyday,” where the young scientist will explore various concepts in using a “cultural arts lens.” He was even recently asked to be the Science Ambassador for the ATLAS experiment after visiting CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva at the invitation of physicist Steven Goldfarb.
“It means a lot to a lot of people that there’s a young Black child who is doing science at this level,” Golphin said.
Both parents said that the educational experience at Howard University afforded them a unique perspective on the way Blackness is perceived and opened their eyes to alternative methods to raising a family and educating their child.
There is a “perspective that you get as a Howard student versus another university that doesn’t have the same appreciation for the Black experience—not just the American Black experience, but internationally—what happens in the Black diaspora and around the world and in other cultures,” Philip said. “I think there’s a sensitivity that you get as a Howard student that you may not in other places.”
Golphin said, “The work that I’ve been able to do as someone who had Howard in their heart, I was able to do a different kind of work for our community...and that kind of work now translates to what I’m doing with my son. He is a part of Howard’s legacy. And I think more than a part of Howard’s legacy of great minds, he is a part of Howard’s future.”