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What's the Plus?

Promoting Justice in Science Education

By Geoffrey Carlisle

On the first day of class each year, I give my 8th grade students a survey that asks them to name an important scientist. Last year’s results continued a troubling trend I’ve seen since I first instituted the survey years ago: Except for one, every single scientist my students named was white and male.

My students’ responses are actually reflective of a broader trend that scientists began measuring in the 1960s. In numerous repeated studies of the famous “draw a scientist test,” researchers consistently find that the vast majority of students draw men, and almost 80% draw scientists who are white. For my students who are mostly Latinx and Black, these results matter because they have troubling implications for their future: Who our students think of as scientists impacts if they believe there’s a place for them in science.

Erasure impacts all of our students but especially those who don’t see their identities reflected in the curriculum. For example, when our students go on to college, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students and young women frequently experience imposter syndrome, feeling unjustified or undeserving of their position especially in STEM programs. And for students who are white and especially white males, being deprived of learning about the contributions and experiences of women and BIPOC scientists can lead to “false notions of superiority and racial entitlement.”

Many educators try to counteract this trend by adorning classroom walls, bulletin boards, and even doors with images of scientists from historically underrepresented communities: scientists who are BIPOC, women, LGBTQIA+, and have disabilities. But simply highlighting diversity is insufficient: Our curriculum often fails to connect the contributions of these scientists directly to the concepts we teach. For example, a study published this summer investigating how scientists are represented in commonly used biology textbooks found that only 8% of scientists represented were people of color, a “significant underrepresentation” of Asian and Hispanic women, and no representation of Black women or Indigenous people.

The implicit message of this erasure only reifies the misconception that advancements in science come exclusively from white men. Additionally, the stories of these scientists reveal essential truths about science, such as the phenomenon of men taking credit for discoveries made women, how bias in science continues to perpetuate racism in healthcare, and how racism’s origins come from science.

However, the onus for this continued erasure does not lie with educators: The culprit is our state standards for science. Every person named in the K-12 Texas Science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills) is a white man. According to Texas, there is not a single contribution from a woman or scientist of color worthy of naming.

Fortunately, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) happens to be in the middle of a once-in-a-decade revision process for the science TEKS. Current recommendations presented to the SBOE simply add the word “diverse” to an existing standard about discussing the impact of individual scientists, while simultaneously deleting the standard requiring students to learn about the history of science. These proposed changes fail to address the root problem of erasure, and reflect a lack of urgency to truly grapple with our long history of racism and sexism in science and education.

The SBOE plans to meet between September 8–11, and this is the moment we must demand change:

  1. Contact your Texas State Board of Education Member.
  2. Explain how the science TEKS erase the contributions of women and BIPOC scientists.
  3. Demand that the TEKS address the history of racism and sexism in science.

In the wake of massive public demonstrations demanding a national reckoning with racism in our country, many educators have used this moment to reflect on how our curriculum perpetuates white supremacy. At this inflection point, we are presented with the opportunity and the momentum to fight for justice. We must heed the call to act instead of wait, and to become instead of merely to wish.

Because racism and sexism are encoded into the DNA of science education, we all must use education as a form of activism to dismantle systems that oppress our students, and reimagine our approach to science education. This is not just the responsibility of educators who predominantly teach students of color. All students benefit from learning about scientists who reflect the identities in our classrooms. To deny them this opportunity will only further perpetuate racism and sexism’s vice grip on science and education.

Geoffrey Carlisle teaches 8th grade science at KIPP Austin College Prep. He is a Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellowship alum.

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