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 firstname.lastname@example.org.