By Amanda Schaffer, Solution Developer at McGraw Hill
The science classroom has always been fertile ground. A place rooted in growth, a place to take a chance and give it a try. A space that empowers students to ask questions, that gives them the tools to be brave, and entangles them in new ideas and fresh perspectives. The science classroom has always been a garden of growth and change.
In science classrooms, we become explorers — teacher and student alike. We become detectives asking questions and letting our wondrous minds soar. In the science classroom light bulbs literally turn on.
If ever there was a place to do the hard work of anti-racism, the science classroom is it.
You see, for the most part, racism relies on darkness and cover to spread but the science classroom can’t help but shed light. Anti-racism language, skills, and learning can happen in any classroom.
However, in the science classroom, it’s critical.
A Look at Diversity in STEM Today
There are many gaps in education, and working to close those gaps is very important. One such gap is an ever-shrinking percentage of women of color graduating with science degrees from colleges. According to the National Science Board, in 2012, only 11.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering were awarded to women of color. (White House)
Additionally, in a separate study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin, Black and Latino youth students who began their college career in a STEM major were much more likely to exit their STEM major before graduating. Even if they came from similar background situations as their white peers. (Friedman, 2019)
This study proves all students are interested in science and STEM-related careers, but not all students end up with a degree that will take them into a STEM field, furthering the gap that exists.
Another study conducted at Georgetown found that students who feel like they don’t belong in a STEM field do not take the course work to lead to a STEM degree. (Doge, 2018)
The above research is a sampling of the impact that racial inequities can have on the STEM field.
It’s imperative now, more than ever that the science classroom becomes a place to dispel stereotypes, confront racial inequities, and work to reach all students wherever they are and whoever they are.
Why the Science Classroom Can be a Catalyst for Change
The beautiful thing about the science classroom needing to focus more on racial inequities is that it’s actually the perfect setting for it.
The science classroom is where the love of asking why begins; it’s where change is appreciated and encouraged. In the science classroom we are given permission to say, “I don’t know.”
The best part of not knowing is that when you don’t know something, your brain is primed and ready for exploration and growth. What better place to inspire change than a science classroom that functions on the constancy of change.
Promoting Anti-Racist Teaching Strategies in STEM Fields
To close the racial gaps in our STEM professions we have to focus on anti-racism in the science classroom, so how do we do that? Here are a few ideas,
- Representation: Increase the diversity of scientists students are exposed to in the classroom, and purposefully choose to highlight scientists from all kinds of backgrounds. The #thisiswhatascientistlookslike hashtag on social media is a wonderful place to start
- Access — Increase the availability of science courses to students above and beyond the required courses. Offer science electives to students.
- Alignment — Provide students the opportunity to practice skills they need in the science classroom in all their classrooms. They can do this by asking questions, practicing perseverance, and wondering why. Applying these skills inside and outside the science classroom will strengthen them and allow students to carry them with them as they continue their education in the years to come.
- Share diverse STEM professions, especially with girls— Visit If/Then, a nonprofit organization designed to inspire girls in STEM careers by showing them female professional scientists in a variety of fields from makeup science, to physics, to immunology. Many students think about STEM careers and immediately assume that means doctor or astronaut, and those are certainly examples but there are so many more options for STEM-related professions. Highlighting these in the classroom can ignite a great passion in students.
- Implicit bias (Learn, Recognize, Reduce) — Learn about implicit bias and what it means for teachers and students. Recognize the bias that already exists in the classroom, your school, and your neighborhood, and work to reduce it by confronting and continuing the cycle of learn, recognize, reduce.
- Sense of belonging — Developing a sense of belonging comes from seeing yourself in others. Find ways in the science classroom to ensure all students feel they belong is invaluable. Stock the bookshelves with books that show people from all backgrounds and capabilities. The science classroom isn’t typically seen as the place for emotions, but increasing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) culture in the science classroom ensures students establish a sense of belonging that they can carry with them throughout school and they will need it. As Dr. Esquivel, an IF/Then Ambassador and Physicist says “keep going even if you feel you don’t belong.”
The science classroom and all its wild wonder holds great power and potential. In the science classroom caterpillars become butterflies, a ball of gas becomes a planet, lights a trillion miles away become bright twinkling stars. My daughter says that science is magic you can make with your bare hands. Her love of science inspires me each and every day and I hope that the science classroom of her future is the rich soil that leads to ridiculous growth, radical change, and the equity all children deserve.
Dodge, Amanda. “What You Need to Know About the STEM Race Gap.” Ozobot, Ozobot & Evollve, Inc., 20 Feb. 2018, ozobot.com/blog/need-know-stem-race-gap.
Friedman, Sara. “Racial Disparities in STEM Graduation Rates.” Campus Technology, Campus Technology, 17 June 2019, campustechnology.com/articles/2019/06/17/racial-disparities-in-stem-graduation-rates.aspx?m=1.
White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans Fact Sheet: Supporting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Success among African American Students. https://sites.ed.gov/whieeaa/files/2016/09/STEM-Fact-Sheet-9.22.16.pdf, https://sites.ed.gov/whieeaa/.
Amanda Schaffer has been an educator for over 17 years. She has worked as a middle school, high school and higher ed teacher. She graduated in 2003 with a Bachelors in Education from the University of Central Florida and later, graduated from Nova Southeastern with a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction. Amanda spent 7 years in the K-12 classroom and then moved on to spend the last 10 years in professional learning and higher education. As a solution developer at McGraw Hill she enjoys researching and developing support strategies and tools for teachers to implement in their classrooms and is especially passionate about equity in education