Teaching Biology as Anti-Racist Practice: Reflections and Share-outs from Fred Hutch’s Biology and Social Justice Working Session

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to participate in a fantastic workshop put on by the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center’s Science Education Partnership. The day included talks by Brian Donovan, a researcher with BSCS who focuses on humane education and how biology education shapes students’ racially biased beliefs, and Jason Foster, a high school teacher who centers his year-long curriculum around issues of social justice and race. We also did a hands-on lab activity that transformed a typical genomics conviction lab into a framework where DNA testing can be used to exonerate those wrongly convicted of crimes.

Three teachers pipette DNA in an exoneration lab during the Biology and Social Justice Working Session on March 23, 2019

Both during and after this workshop, I repeatedly felt like my brain was on fire with new ideas and reframing how I think about science education in a fundamental way. Here are a few of my main takeaways from the event:

Biology educators have a moral obligation to teach students about race. Several peerreviewed studies have shown that the way genetics and race are taught in biology classrooms has a direct effect on students’ concept of genetic differences between individuals of different races and their ideas of how much of the disparities between racial groups can be explained through biology. This long-lasting misconception has its roots in the early years of evolutionary science, where (overwhelmingly white and male) biologists applied the rules of genetics to justify racist ideologies and practices. That same logic is a critical underpinning of white supremacist arguments used to lure individuals (including children) into their bigoted and violent social movements. It is imperative to use evidence-based practices to displace problematic misconceptions about genetics, race, and inequity from our teaching and replace them with interventions that move students towards accurate ideas of what differences exist between racial groups from a biological and genetic perspective.

Race is a powerful social construct with real and potentially deadly influence on human lives. However, biology does not support the stereotypes and distinctions that society imparts on individuals with different racial and ethnic heritage. I’m not going to linger on this much here, because many others have written or presented on this topic with significantly more expertise than I have. One of the coolest parts of being in this workshop was hearing from biologists and geneticists about the cutting-edge research in this area showing that there is very little genetic diversity in the human race as a whole compared to other species, and that there is more diversity genetically within geographical/racial groups than there are between them. Check out this presentation from the conference (which includes presentation notes for context) and this article for more details on the science behind genetic diversity and variation.

Biology, and science more broadly, can be used for anti-racist means and must be framed as tools of liberation. I have taught about the racist history and modern practices of biology and medicine in my classroom, but it wasn’t until I attended this workshop that I saw the transformational power of using biology itself as a tool for social change. Many labs that I have used in the past can easily be changed into pathways for fighting for social justice. One example, mentioned above, is providing context for how DNA testing can exonerate those wrongfully convicted of crimes, folks who are overwhelmingly Black and Latinx. Mr. James Foster shared about a Daphnia lab (remake of the classic lab used by many biology teachers to demonstrate the effects of stimulants and depressants on heart rate) he does with his students focused on common pollutants that are emitted by local factories. After collecting data on how the Daphnia were affected, students write to factory owners and local politicians to share their data and any concerns they have about the impacts those factories are having on local communities. Unsurprisingly, many affected communities are disproportionately black, brown, and poor compared to surrounding neighborhoods that don’t have factories in them. How many other examples are there of ways to reframe the work we are already doing to provide students an avenue for fighting back against oppressive systems?

Anti-racist teaching practice cannot be handed out in a single curriculum packet, nor is it something you earn as a one-time event. Mr. Foster is often asked if he can provide examples of his lesson plans so that other teachers can implement them in their classrooms. His response is consistently no – from his perspective, teachers must first do their own identity work and find their relationship to anti-racism and social justice in their teaching. Then, they need to be attuned to who their students are and identify their needs as a community. Once this work has begun in a deeper way, they will be able to create their own curriculum that meets the needs of those students in an appropriate, timely, and integrity-based manner. This resonated for me deeply. It is incredibly challenging to create this kind of classroom environment, where identity, oppression, and marginalization are at the center of daily practice. However, there is no “one-size-fits-all” curriculum that could possibly tackle the issues faced by individual communities. I left feeling rejuvenated about the ways that this work is complex, ongoing, and individual to the teachers and students in each classroom community.

Small adjustments can lead to big changes. When asked what his biggest challenges in doing anti-racist biology teaching were, Mr. Foster said that it was always himself. A fear of failure pervaded his thinking and made him afraid of taking the first steps in developing his curriculum. “We are scientists and we must savor the iteration process. If we fail, we should bathe in the idea that we should look at what we did, change what didn’t work, and try again.”

It can be easy to fall into despair at the threat of failure, especially when there seems to be so much work ahead of us as biology educators dedicated to liberation. Some easy first steps to implementing changes in your classroom are providing a disclaimer before using problematic or oversimplified language in lesson plans, textbooks, or media used at your school. Next one can create ways for students to participate actively in driving conversations about identity, race, and lived experiences to shine personal context onto your curricular materials and make them more relevant to those in your classroom community. Beyond that, doing your own research, reading, and deep dive into how to add in new ideas or transform your own materials to be centered around social justice is an exciting adventure.

Overall, I left Saturday’s workshop invigorated and rededicated to connecting anti-racist practices to science education, especially in the biology classroom. If you have materials or ideas to share about how to promote further work in this area, leave them in the comments below!

Trans awareness week: highlighting cissexism and transphobia in anthropology and beyond

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November 12-19th was Trans Awareness Week, a time set aside to promote the voices and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming people.  It is a week of celebration and resilience leading up to the long-standing Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR), a say set aside to remember the many people who have been lost to transphobic violence.  Personally, I like thinking of TDOR as the Trans* Day of Rage and Resilience, both of which highlight the many ways that we as trans folks survive and fight back against the systems designed to endanger us and make our stories invisible.  

This year’s Trans Awareness Week felt especially personal for me as a U.S. resident because of a Trump administration memo that was released earlier this year indicating that they intend to remove protections for transgender people under Title IX, perhaps the most important form of protection for trans people, especially trans youth in schools.  Receiving this news made many people in my community afraid of what the future holds for us, myself included – without federal protection, I could be at risk of losing my job, healthcare, housing, or other rights and freedoms that I currently possess.  It is even scarier for the many people in my community that have other intersecting marginalized identities, especially trans folks of color, trans youth, undocumented trans people, and disabled and sick trans folks.

Most distressingly to me as a science educator, the leaked memo referred to sex verification using “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable,” such as the sex assigned at birth or DNA testing.  Not only is this extremely invasive, it is blatantly inaccurate!  As a science educator, I decided to take one step towards reducing ignorance about both the science of sex* and gender AND the ways that cissexism, transphobia, and interphobia show up in institutions of power over and over and over again. (To read one intersex person’s reaction to this memo, check out the awesome blogger Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello at  “The Intersex Roadshow”!)

Gender unicorn bones

As a wrap-up to my unit on the skeletal system, I created this presentation about the science of intersex experience** and nonbinary identity, both of which are frequently erased by conservatives who assert that science says you are born either male or female, end of story.  As it turns out, science shows that there is incredible diversity in human sex and gender across time and culture.  Moreover, teaching students that sex is either male or female, end of story, is damaging in SO many ways – damaging to intersex students and transgender students whose realities are erased, damaging to cisgender binary-assigned students who believe that upholding cissexism and interphobia is normal and acceptable, and damaging to our collective liberation from science that believes that children are not capable of understanding the full complexity of the diversity of human experience.

The unit was based on a case study by Dr. Alison MacIntosh, who studies ancient bones of female people and compares them to living cisgender women’s bone development.  Strikingly, she was one of the first people to examine female remains with comparisons to living women’s bone density – other studies used cis men’s bone density numbers to determine strength, showing one tendril of the deep-rooted vines of institutional sexism in science.  I think Dr. MacIntosh is a total badass and I am proud to share her work with my students!  I also wanted to talk about the ways that anthropology intersects with cissexism and interphobia, and bone development being a secondary sex characteristic seemed like a perfect place to discuss this.  One example is the rating scale used to determine the sex characteristics of bones in a skeleton in the field, which can sometimes be ambiguous or conflicting, with no guidance for scientists about how to interpret those data. There are also examples of skeletons that demonstrate sexual and gender diversity in ancient cultures, with little attention paid to them beyond tabloid coverage that focuses on spectacle rather than science.  Our trans and intersex ancestors’ history and remains are no doubt present and overlooked or missed because of the ways  that scientists were trained to never expect to find them.

If you want to talk about integrating intersex and nonbinary awareness into your curriculum, please reach out!  I am always excited to network with other educators doing the important work of dismantling the structures of ignorance that support the oppression faced by me and my transgender siblings worldwide – and our intersex family as well.  

*In my presentation to students, I used the term “sex” to describe the physical characteristics of a person’s body that are considered sex characteristics.  In my own life and work with adults, I try to move away from using the word “sex,” especially “biological sex,” because of its ambiguous meaning and its role in transphobia, especially transmisogyny.  Read more about this topic from Julia Serano (Medium) and Mey (Autostraddle)!

**It feels important for me to note here that I am not intersex, and emphasize that the needs of intersex and transgender communities are very different (though many people identify as both intersex and transgender).  I personally believe that destigmatizing intersexuality is an important step towards liberation of all communities who experience body-focused, sexual, and/or gender discrimination, including transgender people among many others.

Body breaks: 5 minutes of somatic learning

This year, I’ve changed my daily routine to include five minutes called a “body break”: a physical activity that either increases students’ understanding of current topics or gives them time to explore getting to know their body and brain better.

As students and teachers, we spend a lot of our time in our minds somewhere else, whether that’s on the next step of our lesson plan, the reading we forgot to do the night before, or stressing about an email we have to respond to, like, yesterday.  Taking 5 minutes from my regular class time more than makes up for itself during “regular” instruction because it regrounds my students and me in the moment.  Pausing to take a breath and think about bodies from a physical perspective allows the brain to relax, focus, and really listen – it gives me and my students fresh eyes during each class period.

Learning with the body and putting this as the priority has also led me to develop a number of creative ways to think about anatomy, physiology, and health topics in a more kinesthetic and somatic way.  I start my classes with five minutes of a “body break” each day.  I lead them Monday-Thursday, and a rotating student leader takes it on during Fridays (which are also our reading discussions).  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Five minutes of mindfulness.  Taking a breath and noticing the sensations in your body are a great way to spend 5 minutes regrounding in the present moment.  I’ve used body scans, breathing exercises, and simple “body time” (where kids can just notice themselves and be in their own headspace without interacting with others) on many occasions, especially when a class seems particularly rowdy or stressed.  I once had a student enter my classroom crying and after just 2 minutes of sitting in silence, she was fine to continue class.  Silence is powerful stuff!
  • Building self-knowledge of one’s own body and how it works.  We practice stretching specific muscle groups as a way to learn about the anatomy and physiology of muscles, and look at the differences between muscles, tendons and ligaments in interesting parts of the body like the fingers. We also observe muscle strain and lactic acid buildup during anaerobic exercise by doing wall sits or planks, noticing how different it is to do repetitive motion versus sustained motion.  We also do proprioception practice, using balance and self-awareness as a natural relief for those experiencing stress at home or school.  Kids also love to share their favorite weird body tricks, including pressure points, double-jointedness, and proportions – did you know that your foot is about the same length as your forearm, for example?
  • Modeling anatomy and physiology features.  In addition to looking at our own bodies, we can model major body systems and tissues using fun and engaging tactics!
    • Surface area to volume ratio: dodge ball!  When talking about villi being built to maximize surface area, we modeled randomly moving nutrient particles using soft balls that were thrown while blindfolded.  We measured how many of the balls made it when student targets stretched out as big as possible, and how many hit when those students were crumpled up tight like a ball.  In general, the bigger the surface area, the more successful contact with the “nutrients” there was.
    • Peristalsis: hula hoop pass!  We played this game while talking about peristalsis, which passes food down the esophagus using muscle motions that move in one direction.  Have the class race itself to see how quickly they can move that bolus!
    • Polysaccharides & enzymes tag  Like “blob tag” – students are all saccharides trying to join as one large chained molecule.  1-3 students are enzymes that can split apart people whose hands are joined, creating a kind of homeostasis if the numbers are just right!
  • Core skills of medicine.  Students can practice the skills that medical practitioners use in their daily operations!
    • Measuring heart rate/pulse with the fingers.  During our cardiovascular system unit, we discussed a number of things that impact heart rate and why they change it.  We measured our pulse one day, then did experiments the rest of the week using aerobic exercise, mindfulness/resting, and even an ice bath!
    • Using a stethoscope and measuring blood pressure are fun skills to practice if you have access to stethoscopes and cuffs.  Students learn a lot about blood and the heart through the physical nature of these tools.
    • Directions of the body can be learned using motions on the body or around the room to learn and review important location terminology (dorsal/ventral, anterior/posterior, superior/inferior, etc.)
  • Content review.  It is always nice to be able to go through recent content with kids while playing a game or moving our bodies!
    • “Cerebrum’s Coming”: Uses the same model as “Captain’s Coming,” but the things that are called out are locations in the brain (relative to the whole classroom) or motions associated with parts of the nervous system.  (Amygdala = freeze in a “fight” stance, neuron = “nerve cell” with a salute, etc.)
    • Pepper is a technique from “Teach Like a Champion” that asks kids fast-paced review questions while tossing a ball back and forth as they answer them.  I always play it before quizzes and tests as a way to “warm up” and get kids in the zone for the assessment.  It can also be a fun body break reviewing from the previous day, or from a distant unit that kids haven’t thought about in a while!
    • Paprika is my riff off of Pepper, where kids are the ones asking the questions.  All students stand up, and I start by asking a question and passing the ball to a student. Then, that student asks a question about the unit and passes it on.  All students need to both ask a question related to our unit and answer a different person’s question correctly before they can sit down.  The benefit of being last?  You get to ask me anything you want!
    • “Oh Cells” is based on “Oh Deer” , a game I loved as an outdoor educator teaching about ecosystem dynamics.  In this game, cells are the ones looking for nutrients, water, and oxygen in the body.  When they reach the Hayflick Limit (3 turns), they go through apoptosis.  Later in the game, a twist comes in when cells develop mutations that lead to cancer: they don’t “pop” any more and cancer takes over the living system!

Takeaways: One thing that I LOVE about body breaks is that it turns our classroom into a laboratory.  As an anatomy & physiology teacher, the kinds of inquiry-based labs I used to do when teaching physics don’t work in the same way… unless kids are doing things that are feasible with their own physical selves.

Another thing that body breaks emphasize is how different each body is from others.  Textbooks tend to imply that everyone’s insides are identical, or that the way each brain is wired is precisely the same.  In reality, though the basics are the same for every human being, there are distinct differences for each individual that make each body unique.  Not weird, or wrong, just different – that’s the beauty of the human experience!

Teaching human biology with case studies

It’s been an exciting summer, filled with lots of professional and personal development opportunities.  I’ll be spending time in the next few weeks summarizing some of the exciting new tools I’ve gathered in my time in the Master’s of Science in Science Education (MSSE) program at Montana State University during our summer semester.

One class that I was particularly excited about was “Teaching Anatomy & Physiology using Case Studies.”  The course focused on case studies as a form of minds-on learning that fits particularly well in an A&P setting.  As I shift from a primarily physical science focus to human biology, the inquiry format that I have used in past years no longer applies in the same way.  (Handing four kids a gerbil and saying, “Figure out how it works!” is hardly an reasonable – or ethical – task!)

Case studies provide students with a similar guided-inquiry environment where they are piecing together information into a meaningful story about a particular body system or phenomenon.  By using topics that are super-relevant to students, like caffeine consumption, athletic doping, or the Paleo diet, cases create engagement and relevance to human biology.  Cases also make it easy to integrate human society into everyday topics, including class, race, and identity – in ways that make teaching more powerful and effective without removing content.  I consider case studies a key tool in social justice science education.

Part of the class was participating in online case studies with our classmates.  In the process, I learned a great deal about human body systems, but I learned even more from observing our professor ask really strong, probing questions in discussion.  Her questions were well-timed, and pushed our understanding to the next level without getting off-topic.  Asking good questions is something I am always honing in my teaching craft, so I was grateful to be a part of that process.

As the final project, I wrote my own case study, which I wanted to share publicly so that others can use it.  It focuses on the allergic response as a lens to how the immune system works.  If you do use it, please let me know how it goes and what you changed!  Please forgive a handful of late-night typos 🙂

Do you teach using case studies?  What would you want to create a case study about?  What other ways exist for inquiry processes to fit into a human biology curriculum?  Share your ideas in the comments!

BONUS: In searching for content related to science teaching using case studies, I found a collection of case studies focused on diversity and inclusion to use in faculty & staff trainings, and a collection of cases where teachers are improving their science teaching.  Enjoy!