Science education PhD student serves as first-ever African American woman on O’Fallon City Council

Gwen Randolph

Gwen Randolph, a PhD student in science education at UMSL, became the first African American woman to serve on the city council in O’Fallon, Illinois, when she was sworn in last August. Randolph, who is a Navy veteran, currently serves as science content specialist for East. St. Louis School District 189 in Illinois. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Gwen Randolph’s swearing in last August was a groundbreaking moment for the O’Fallon, Illinois, City Council. Randolph, the newest Ward 5 alderwoman, is the first African American woman to ever serve on the council in its 114-year history.

She understands the gravity of that distinction. She also knows she is so much more.

“I have always been in occupations where I’ve pretty much been a first or an only,” said Randolph, who is also pursuing her PhD in science education from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “I am very proud of my heritage, yes, but it cannot be the only thing people see when I serve. I am African American; I am female; I am a scientist; I am an educator; I am human. I am a citizen who serves for the betterment of life in my community.”

Randolph was in all gifted classes growing up in East St. Louis, Illinois, and science was her specialty. She joined the Navy out of high school and served for nearly eight years as an air traffic controller in Italy and in Memphis, Tennessee, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and secondary education.

She moved back to St. Louis and taught chemistry, biology and anatomy/physiology in the Hazelwood School District, earned a master’s degree from Maryville University and moved on to be the science curriculum supervisor for St. Louis Public Schools. She is currently in her second year as science content specialist for her alma mater East St. Louis School District 189, where she presides over the science education plan for the entire district.

“I always had great teachers, friends and family members who told me I was smart, I could do anything or become whomever or whatever I wanted,” Randolph said. “As I grew and became a mom – one of my greatest gifts – all of those affirmations became a thrust for me to improve the quality of life not only for my generation but for those behind me.”

For the past three years, she has been working on her PhD dissertation at UMSL with advisor Charles Granger, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Biology and Education. It has been a long process advancing toward a doctorate while holding down a full-time job as an educator, but Randolph anticipates that she will be done within the year.

Her topic is determining the correlative strength between time on task and student achievement in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields, as well as whether added emphasis on STEM education helps students in other subjects. Randolph says her time in the UMSL PhD program has strengthened her drive to improve lives through education and produced more practical benefits as well, such as a new way to approach her writing suggested by E. Desmond Lee Family Professor of Science Education William Kyle, who is on her dissertation committee.

“He told me to step back and read my writing through the lens of an outsider,” Randolph said. “He told me, as I write, to remember how I as the author want to be remembered.”

Granger has known Randolph for more than a decade in her role as a science educator in the region and says the same attributes that make her effective in that arena are helping her doctoral candidacy.

“She’s a self-starter and very creative, really sincere about answering a question that’s important to her and her profession as she sees it now,” Granger said. “She really believes in the hands-on inquiry approach, that students need to be engaged and not just memorize a series of facts. She’s been very strong on that for a long time. Plus, she’s easy to talk to. It’s not like pulling teeth to interact with her at all. She’s a very positive person.”

In her role as alderwoman, Randolph thoroughly enjoys her efforts on the public works and public safety committees. She absorbs new information and offers a fresh perspective to the council. Her background in teaching and researching science, as well as in the military and as a counselor at a juvenile correctional facility, give her real-world experience to draw upon in her duties.

Her seat is up for election in April. Mayor Herb Roach appointed and the council approved her last summer, so this will be her first time convincing the electorate to vote for her.

“It’s enlightening, and I like being on the forefront,” Randolph said of her seat on the council. “If you see anything or feel like something needs to happen, I’m in a position to have that heard and make change. I just love my community.”

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