People often assume that objectivity is a cornerstone of science. Many scientists and others believe that the discipline is a “culture of no culture,” as Sharon Traweek indicates in Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. In truth, we know that science is a human endeavor (as it is explicitly described in the Next Generation Science Standards), and the observations scientists make reflect their personal perspectives and experiences.
It stands to reason, then, that there are scientific benefits to diversifying the field—for instance, papers with greater diversity in the author list tend to be published in higher-impact journals and are cited more frequently. Additionally, technology often reflects the needs of the inventors; results show that pulse oximeters are less effective on patients with darker skin, a problem that might have been averted with a more diverse scientific workforce. And yet, large portions of the population remain underrepresented.
When the Nobel Prizes were awarded last October, our high school physics classes looked at demographic information about people who have won a Nobel Prizes or earned a Ph.D. in physics. It was surprising to learn, through an informal survey, that nearly 50% of students said that they had not noticed a proportional lack of Black, Hispanic and Indigenous physicists before that day’s lesson. As one student noted after class, “We need to do more to educate ourselves about the problems of underrepresentation and discrimination in this country.” As science teachers, we can use the tools of science to fill this educational need.
Using the Scientific Method to Understand Inequity
The Underrepresentation Curriculum is a free, flexible resource for science educators, funded in part by Learning for Justice, which includes lessons that help students use the tools of science to look at the field of science.
We have been using versions of this curriculum in class for the past 15 years, spending anywhere from one class period to two weeks on these issues. Some of our classrooms have predominantly white, while others included a diverse mix of students, and the curriculum has been taught by teachers of a variety of races and genders. The vast majority of our students have appreciated the time spent on these lessons and found them to be an eye-opening look at the state of science today and a useful way to approach their own paths as learners.
Rather than hoping that students will notice a lack of diversity in the field, this curriculum uses modular lesson plans to actively engage students. As one student wrote after completing the curriculum: “[Race and privilege] aren’t issues that vanish when you walk through the door of an academic institution, they shape every interaction and each student’s learning experience, for better or for worse.”
Using methods of critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning and data analysis, students are given the opportunity to question why science looks the way it does—why it is so heavily male and so absent of Black, Latinx and Indigenous representation. The curriculum gives us a framework for approaching discussions of equity, and it challenges students to engage these questions in a meaningful and rigorous way.
To make science more accessible to all of our students, we need to understand the current inequities in the field. Science teachers looking for ways to take on questions of representation may benefit from the step-by-step lesson plans that the Underrepresentation Curriculum provides.
The Underrepresentation Curriculum
The freely available resources from the Underrepresentation Curriculum can be followed as-is or modified to suit one’s individual needs. It has been adapted for students from middle school through college, and there is a growing community of fellow educators to provide support. The curriculum is composed of three units:
- The early lesson plans help students examine the nature of science and the demographics of scientists today and ask them to consider whether representation matters in a field like science.
- Additional lessons dive deeper into specific topics relevant to underrepresentation, including implicit bias, affirmative action and meritocracy. By providing activities, resources and discussion questions, the curriculum helps students learn more about how these topics affect the learning and practice of science.
- Finally, action-based lessons encourage students to turn their new knowledge into action, such as writing letters advocating for faculty of color, organizing study groups with students from different backgrounds or creating a poster for display in a science classroom.
Addressing representation in class takes time. As science teachers, we often struggle to fit in all of the technical content we want students to learn, and it can seem difficult to “sacrifice” class time for topics outside of the textbook, even if we are convinced of their importance.
But we can help our students see that the tools of science can be applied much more broadly than just observations of the physical world. Engaging in honest conversations about the state of science using the tools of science enables students to push past any potential discomfort and practice listening and learning from multiple perspectives, a skill that is critical in any field.
We will never know what the would-be scientists of previous generations might have brought to the world. But the beauty of science is that it is ever-evolving. As teachers, we can equip the next generation of students with a better understanding of how science has grown to be what it is and empower them to imagine what science could be.