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

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