Not All Fields Created Equal: an evening with Sapna Cheryan, PhD

This evening, I had the pleasure of learning more about the gender gap in STEM from Sapna Cheryan, a researcher at the University of Washington focused on interrogating the STEM fields with the largest gaps in gender parity: computer science, engineering, and physics.  Her talk was sponsored by the Evergreen School and was geared primarily towards K-12 teachers and parents.

Dr. Cheryan focused on two factors that make a particular field unwelcoming to women: masculine culture and insufficient early experience with those particular fields.  The former is a combination of beliefs, norms, structures, and interactions that cause women to feel a lower sense of belonging in a particular institution or field.  The latter focused on ways that early training is biased against equal exposure and skill-building across STEM fields, leading to unequal outcomes.

One of the most striking findings Dr. Cheryan shared had to do with the effect of physical space on how welcomed and interested students were in a particular course.  One study she cited asked high school students about their interest in taking a hypothetical computer science course being offered.  Students in the two experimental groups had the same class described to them – it had a male teacher, met a certain number of times per week, and focused on the same amount and rigor of content.  The only difference between the classes was the physical space the class met in.  One class met in a stereotypically “geeky” classroom, with Star Trek ephemera, visible electronics equipment, and action figures present in the classroom (left image, University of Washington).  The other classroom offered was a more neutral space, with plants, art pieces, and water bottles around the classroom (right image, University of Washington).

How much of a difference can a physical space make?  As it turns out, quite a lot!  When asked about their interest in taking the course, students seeing a stereotypical classroom showed typical gender disparity in their interest.  When viewing the neutral, non-stereotypical classroom with the plants and water bottles – that gap in interest disappeared.

Moreover, students sense of belonging in the course showed a similar trend.  This led Dr. Cheryan and her team to coin a term for this: ambient belonging.  She defined ambient belonging as how one senses a “fit with the material components of an environment and with the people who are imagined to occupy that environment.”

This concept of ambient belonging struck a chord for me personally and for many in the audience.  Spaces reflect those they are designed for, whether that be literal physical access for people with disabilities, comfort by seeing images of people with shared identities for people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks, or the way that objects can invite a particular set of cultural norms, be that Star Trek figurines or exercise equipment.

One listener invited those attending the talk to think about ways that we can teach our kids and students to observe their sense of ambient belonging and use that awareness as a tool of empowerment.

I am inspired to bring this to the leadership at my school, where we are in the process of planning and building a new middle school building.  I also feel challenged to think about the ways my classroom may be a more or less welcoming space to specific students based on their identity, values, and socialization.

When discussing insufficient early experience in computer science, physics, and engineering, Dr. Charyan discussed the advantages of requiring those types of courses instead of making them optional.  When students are not required to take classes in a particular STEM field, students who don’t see themselves reflected in the work of those fields based on stereotypes or their own conceptions often opt out.  They are not exposed to the real work of the discipline, nor are they able to develop the groundwork for further learning if they were to discover an interest later in their education.  This is certainly true at my school, where computer science and physics are both electives, and no explicit engineering course is consistently offered.

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As the conclusion to her talk, Dr. Charyan gave advice that she would give to her own high school, a STEM-focused research school at the University of Indiana.  Of the suggestions she provided, the one that struck me most was the last – send students to colleges with good cultures within STEM.

I attended a small private liberal arts college well-known for being a hotbed of social activism from its very founding.  Yet when I studied Economics as an undergrad, an out queer person and a person perceived as female in an overwhelmingly cis male department, I found very little empathy or acknowledgement from faculty that I was in a challenging position.  The one tenured female faculty member in the department gave me the same advice she had been given, that had enabled her to survive in a cutthroat, male-dominated field – suck it up.  No acknowledgement of the challenges of the culture, no conversation about disparities was ever posed as even a possibility, even in one-on-one interactions with faculty.

It can be easy to say that in order for students to survive in the broader world, they need to be prepared for the reality of white masculine culture and the disparities faced by women, people of color, and people with disabilities in STEM fields.  It is crystal clear, however, that this focus on “toughing up” is not only ineffective, it sets talented future scientists on the path to burnout and failure.  Identifying healthy, equity-focused school cultures and sending our students to those institutions is the solution to success, not telling them to suck it up and learn to live among the powerful.  Instead, taking that biased “reality” and queering it to our own ends is one step on the path to equity.

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Science Characters, Part 3: Reflections

Doing this identity-related work with my students was completely transformative for me as a teacher.  An incredible amount of effort went into not only the preparation for each lesson, but also the day-to-day reality of discussing challenging and often-taboo topics with students like race, ability, and class.  Being fully present and engaging in that kind of discourse was exhausting, but it also brought our community closer together.

Part of what inspired me to do this project was an article I read in Quartz magazine, “There’s a way to get girls to stick with science–and no, it’s not more female role models.”  A female science journalist, Shannon Palus, writes about the discrimination and lack of welcome she and others have experienced when trying to go into scientific research, and how role models or pink-ified experiments don’t change that discrimination from having an impact on women’s day-to-day experience in STEM fields.  The solution?

“In a study of 7,505 high school students, Geoff Potvin, a researcher at Florida International University, measured the effect of a handful of common interventions on students’ interest in physics: single-sex classes; having role models including women physics teachers, women guest speakers, and women who made contributions to the field; and discussing the problem of underrepresentation itself. Of these efforts, only the last one succeeded in making high-school women more interested in pursuing a career in the physical sciences.”

Talking about it.  Being open about the fact that discrimination exists, that it is pervasive, and that it is surmountable – but certainly not over – was the only intervention that Potvin found to be effective in making women more interested in pursuing a career in physical sciences.  Ultimately, that was one of the major goals of implementing this project in my class, and I think I succeeded in having those conversations and putting discrimination out in the open as a topic for interrogation and reflection.

I was lucky enough to have teachers who were willing to have hard conversations about sexism, racism, and heternormativity when I was in high school.  I thought of them often as I entered these discussions with my own students, each of which was completely different and vulnerable and scary. I doubt my high school teachers had many role models that showed them how to navigate the waters as teachers and advocates for social justice.  I admire their bravery so much more in retrospect, and it gave me hope that the work I am doing now will have a real impact on the lives of my students.

There were a lot of unexpected benefits that emerged as a result of doing this project.

  • Students with a strong sense of justice had an opportunity to really shine.  Many of the kids who did the best job articulating how racism, sexism, and other discrimination operates in the world and affects STEM outcomes were students that hadn’t found great connections in my class in the past.
  • Students learned a LOT about different kinds of STEM careers while doing their research.  If you had asked my students beforehand what a virologist or a neurobiologist were, they would have had no idea – but after reading through and hearing about different scientists’ stories, they are much more aware of the diversity of STEM careers available in the world!  In particular, students got very excited about nanotechnology, roboticists, and different forms of medicine that they had not been aware of before.
  • As a queer and trans* person, I gained scientific role models that share my identity, something that I had never had the opportunity to study before.  I found it a very emotional and opening process to read about the stories of other people in STEM who have overcome the stigma facing folks like us – especially trans* folks, whose lives can literally be put on the line for being open about our experiences.
  • Students easily connected issues facing underrepresented groups in STEM to their own experiences of being students and young people in our society.  We had many candid conversations about the relationship between students and adults at our school, and how that is related to how power operates in the world more generally.  They had lots of questions about how to address injustice when it is coming from teachers and other adults – and it led to some cool initiatives and conversations with those adults in our community.  These things continue to come up, and I hope this opened a pathway for kids to express when and how they are uncomfortable with how things are being run in a particular classroom or space.

I really loved doing this work, and hope that after reading about it you will try something similar in your own work as educators, parents, and mentors of children.  I never could have imagined the impact this had on me and my classroom – and this is really work that has to be done one classroom at a time.

Doing something similar?  Want to chat?  Feel like engaging with this more deeply?  Please please reach out – you can email me at ltravis@seattleacademy.org.

SC quick links:  Part IPart IIInspiration project

Science Characters, Part 2: Learning and sharing STEM stories

In addition to studying the implications of how socialization and institutional bias affect outcomes in STEM fields, students were asked to choose a particular scientist, engineer, or mathematician to study and share out their story to the broader school community.

To help students identify people whose stories are lesser-known, as well as encourage them to think outside the usual boxes of who makes an underrepresented scientist, I made a list of scientists they could study, linked to here.  When making the list, I prioritized a couple of factors:

  • I prioritized people who are still living, so that students could reach out to them if they wanted to, as well as understand that scientists are still doing important and groundbreaking work even today.
  • Within each underrepresented group, I made sure each list was less than 50% cisgender men.  There is no list of women who don’t have a different identity from the list, even though women continue to be underrepresented in most STEM fields.
  • These lists are by no means comprehensive (and there is no way that I could make them so!!).  I tried to give my students a rich, diverse, but manageable group of people to choose from when doing their project.

Students’ projects were awesome.  They created a 3-5 minute presentation for the class, as well as a small poster that could be put up around the school.  The rubric I used to grade them asked them to not only learn about the scientist’s life and story, but also examine the character traits that helped them succeed.  I used the VIA Classification of Character Strengths tool to help kids identify the specific ways that their chosen STEM innovator met success.  The goal was for students to be able to identify specific ways that any person could succeed in STEM, regardless of their identity or inherent ability.

Here is a bulletin board that shows off students’ work.  (My curation notes here.)  You can tell that students took this project seriously and put in their best effort to share their scientists’ stories!

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SC quick links: Part IPart IIIInspiration project

Science Characters, Part 1: Who Does Science Changes What Science Does

This post outlines a unit I did with 6th grade students at an independent school about the intersections of identity and STEM.  It is built off of the work Moses Rifkin does with his 12th grade physics students at University Prep – read more about his work/experiences here (Part 1 of 4)!

The 6th grade curriculum I inherited included one brief unit about the history of science, which covered the main scientists credited with different models of the atom.  Students learned about 5 different models of the atom, 4 of which were named after DWGs (dead white guys).  They acted out their research about those atoms in skits that mostly perpetuated misconceptions about both who does science (DWGs) and how science is done (in a 5-minute period of time, with no obstacles to progress, by DWGs in lab coats).

This year, I wanted a change.  Inspired by Rifkin’s work and the work of many inspiring scientists, engineers, and mathematicians from groups underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), I set out to create a unit that would simultaneously give kids more role models that weren’t DWGs in STEM and give them a clearer picture of how science works in real time.

“Science Characters” was a project in two parts.  One part was students learning about how socialization and institutional bias, among other factors, lead to inequalities in different groups’ representation in STEM.  The other was students doing individual research on someone in STEM who is from an underrepresented group and share out their work with the broader community.  When I say underrepresented group, I mean any group that, as a result of lack of privilege and power, is less-represented in STEM fields than in the broader U.S. working-age population.  In this project, I focused specifically on people with disabilities, people of color, LGBTQ people, and women, though there are many groups that find themselves on the margin in STEM.

Before the unit began, as a part of a larger in-class survey, I asked students a few questions about science careers and to list three scientists they could think of off the top of their heads.  Here are the results from that survey (excluding kids’ friends and family, whose identities are unknown): 95.5% were white, 4.5% people of color; 81.8% were men, 8.2% were women, and 0% were non-binary identified; 90.9% were presumably straight & cisgender, 9.1% were out as LGBT and/or Q; and 97.7% were able-bodied, 2.3% were people with disabilities.

This created a great launching point for our class conversation about why certain groups come to mind quickly when thinking about “a scientist.”  On the first day of the unit, I talked about this with statistics about who is in the STEM workforce compared with the U.S. workforce as a whole.  I also shared my own personal story in STEM/academia in general.  As a trans person, I started my work in STEM perceived as a woman; now that I am seen as male, I get much more respect from my colleagues and especially my students.  I also talked about my experience as a white, able-bodied, college-educated person in STEM, and the privilege that comes along with those identities.  Here’s a link to the slides I used in case you want to create something similar.

Later that week, I asked kids to have a discussion in class about some of the reasons they thought certain groups continue to be underrepresented in STEM, even in 2016. It’s important that we had strong class norms going into the unit – speak from your own experience, assume good intentions/at with good intentions, and impact and intention are not the same.  Kids were reminded of these again and again – and as a facilitator, it was important to help guide conversations towards these goals.  Practicing talking as a group respectfully about things like race, ability, and gender explicitly was really helpful for future conversations about specific strategies to work towards greater equality, and kids had lots of incredible stories and insights to share.

The next week, kids were asked to watch this TED Talk: “The Future of STEM Depends on Diversity” by Nicole Cabrera Salazar.  She uses many examples that really spoke to kids and stuck with them. Cabrera Salazar breaks down the issues facing underrepresented groups when entering STEM into two broad categories: 1. Institutional bias, which comes from bias being magnified by larger structures like corporations and schools, and 2. Socialization, which comes from interactions with elders and peers and how one is encouraged (or discouraged) to act as a scientist.

From this, I led one lesson on how we can address each issue.  For institutional bias, I gave kids examples of how folks in STEM have challenged broader structures of inequality by thinking innovatively and using diverse strategies.  These organizations, mostly located in Seattle where I teach, are summarized in these slides/articles that I had kids read about in groups and then present out to the class.

For addressing socialization, I used the Speak Up! curriculum from Teaching Tolerance (including these videos that were originally meant for teachers but are great for use in the classroom) in giving kids tools to address hurtful and limiting comments they might hear from peers or even teachers.  This led to many fruitful conversations about productive responses to others’ biased ideas, and many kids were brainstorming using real-world examples.  This is a highly pertinent and challenging topic in middle school; I feel like I could teach this every week from a different angle and it would be productive and useful.

SC quick links:  Part IIPart III