There’s a common misconception that science is inherently neutral and objective, absolving it of any responsibility for racist beliefs and practices. However, many of the scientific advancements we celebrate are rooted in racism and sexism.
Numerous medical cures and breakthroughs, including the polio vaccine and recent developments towards an HIV vaccine, required HeLa cells. Notably, these HeLa cells were stolen from Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, without her consent in 1951. Furthermore, within the vast scope of science history, men have continuously taken credit for women’s intellectual work in science, a pervasive phenomenon known as the Matilda Effect.
While these stories illustrate that science is anything but neutral, it has made teaching more complicated than ever. Twenty-eight states, including where I teach in Texas, have recently introduced or passed legislation banning teachers from discussing bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression with students. Being an educator that seeks to create an unbiased, anti-racist environment for students feels like an impossible task in this current climate.
Over the years, I’ve seen how science creates disparate outcomes based on gender and race in my classroom, so much so that the students themselves are unable to see themselves in the field of science. Given this data and my real-life experiences as an educator, how can I teach science ethically and inclusively when state legislatures seek to ban this approach?
The “Draw a Scientist” Test
Each year, I conduct a survey for my students based on the famous Draw-A-Scientist Test. Using the framework of this test, I ask students to name a renowned scientist, then draw what a scientist looks like. In numerous studies that implemented this test, researchers learned that students tend to draw male scientists more as they get older, and almost 80% draw scientists who are white.
Unfortunately, after instituting the test for the past five years – receiving responses from over 500 students – this year’s results were roughly the same: 98% of my students named scientists that are white and male, and only 18% of their drawings showed scientists who were women. Furthermore, in this same survey, less than 20% of my students believed they could become a scientist. These results matter because who our students think of as scientists impacts whether they believe there’s a place for them in science and further illustrates how far racism and sexism permeate science.
Moving Beyond Representation
When I first observed this trend in my classroom, I was eager to learn how other science educators addressed this issue. Unfortunately, from the numerous teaching conferences I attended, only a few sessions acknowledged the intersection of science, race, and gender; those that did focused on increasing representation without critically examining the contributing factors to underrepresentation. Moreover, the solutions presenters provided have been done before. Yes, we can adorn our walls adorned with posters of women and BIPOC scientists, but it will take more than a few posters for students to see diversity in science.
Furthermore, representation in science remains an issue. In a study published last summer, researchers examined representation in commonly used biology textbooks and found that only 8% of featured scientists were people of color. Even the standards that I am required to teach perpetuate this trend; every person named in the K-12 Texas Science Knowledge and Skills is white. This erasure sends the implicit message that women and scientists of color have not made meaningful contributions to science, which is both untrue and harms students.
So, what are educators supposed to do when the standards and resources we rely on are racist and misogynistic? Furthermore, how do we overcome the drought of classroom-ready resources that profile historically excluded scientists? Here are some key takeaways from education researchers studying the intersection of race and gender in science classrooms:
- Support your students by acknowledging and critiquing inequity. Create space in your lessons for students to investigate and discuss the impacts and causes of disparities in science representation.
- Infuse your curriculum with diverse cultural perspectives and contributions to science concepts and development. Build time in your lessons to name essential contributions made by women and BIPOC scientists that inform foundational concepts in science.
- Diversity alone isn’t enough. Address how structural racism and sexism can reinforce meritocracy and equal opportunity myths. When engaging students in the stories of scientists, do not simply name their accomplishments and contributions; as Dr. Manali Sheth suggests, build in time to explore “how racism [and sexism] mediates access to, struggles for, and success in science careers and education.”
Teacher Identity Matters
During one of my first “Scientist Spotlights,” we read the story of the Harvard Computers, a group of white women at Harvard who painstakingly made the first catalog of stars in the night sky. While making significant scientific advancements, they were prevented from using the telescopes and paid less than half of the wages paid to men doing similar work. After the lesson, a student asked, “When are we going to learn about scientists that look like us?” While this was only my third Scientist Spotlight, each story I told centered on white women in science. Unfortunately, in my efforts to increase the visibility of women in science, I overlooked scientists of color while teaching to a room full of Black and Brown students. The student had rightly called me out.
As my colleague, Aisha Douglas, expertly says, “Building culturally responsive classrooms for students of color means that white teachers must actively and continuously interrogate their whiteness and how it may show up in curriculum and instruction.” Any teacher can tell you students are experts at detecting when someone is inauthentic, and it’s not lost on them that I am neither a woman nor a person of color. Therefore, each day I need to be willing to critique systems that I directly benefit from, provide opportunities for students to share their connections to the stories of these scientists, and admit where I have fallen short.
When my survey revealed that my students didn’t believe becoming a scientist was possible, this was a wake-up call for me. The traditional way of teaching science wasn’t going to be enough, and since then, I’ve worked hard to change this narrative for my students. At our 8th grade graduation each year, my students write a paragraph about their college and career goals. Seeing the vast majority of my students’ name majors and occupations in science gives me hope that my students believe there’s a place for them in science.
Erasure impacts our students, especially those who don’t see their identities reflected in the curriculum. Creating space to critically examine the complexity and context of these stories provide students with critical thinking opportunities and adds a human dimension to science where students can find connections and inspiration.
In the wake of massive public demonstrations demanding a national reckoning with racism in our country, many educators have used this moment to reflect on how our curriculum perpetuates white supremacy. Science educators need to participate in this conversation and critically reflect on how we can go beyond representation to make our classrooms liberatory spaces for all students.