Recent research has shown that having greater diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, ability, and thought greatly improves the output of ideas in workplace and educational environments. (Incidentally, diversity of thought often comes naturally after ensuring diversity along other lines.) In her TEDx talk “The Future of STEM Depends on Diversity,” Nicole Cabrera talks about reasons why diversity in STEM fields doesn’t just make sense from an ethical perspective but also from an economic perspective. You can also check out John Gussman’s presentation called “Diversity and the College Experience” or his book of the same name for information on why diversity matters at the university level.
It’s clear that diversity in STEM fields and education is a good thing for intellectual, economic, and personal progress in those fields. Diversity initiatives in the classroom that do not respond to the unique needs of marginalized students, however, are doomed to fail. This means that the identities of professionals and students in STEM fields should matter a lot when we design our lessons and mentor students. So how can we as educators in STEM classrooms improve the climate for students hold marginalized identities in order to clear a path for in STEM disciplines and careers? I have collected a few tips below that are specifically aimed at instructors and mentors who mostly work with undergraduate students in STEM from underrepresented minority (URM) backgrounds.
- Take steps in your classroom to mitigate stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when someone feels that they may be falling into stereotypes about their identity group. Stereotype is related to ideas about the supposed differences in intelligence between various identity groups (which don’t actually exist). Many people claim that they are “just not a math/science person.” However, there is no such thing as a math or science person. There is a large body of evidence saying that intelligence is malleable, meaning that it is not fixed and can change over time due to changes in environment. Furthermore, researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that telling students that intelligence is malleable actually makes students perform better in math and science classes. There are many lessons that instructors have developed for teaching students about malleable intelligence. You can find a good example here.
- Approach your teaching (and your research) while keeping the racist, sexist, and ableist history of science in mind. Astrophysicist and activist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has compiled a seminal list of resources called the “Decolonising Science Reading List” for scientists who want to educate themselves on the narrative of science in the context of racism and imperialism. I cannot recommend this list of Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s writings highly enough.
- Encourage students to join groups of STEM students and professionals who share their backgrounds. Students can join groups like SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) or NSBP (National Society of Black Physicists). Many national STEM organizations hold conferences where students can present their own research and connect with mentors in their field who share their background. Most of these groups offer financial support to students who want to attend the conferences but cannot afford to do so.
- As a classroom instructor, use active learning and group activities instead of direct lecturing as much as possible. I wrote about active learning and marginalized students a few months back. Active learning activities improve the performance of all students in science classes but they especially help students from marginalized backgrounds.
The tips above do not address many of the serious inequities that come from systemic, economic, and social factors that keep STEM students from marginalized groups from pursuing STEM careers. It should be noted that these tips are not all-encompassing. They are intended to get people started thinking about these issues. I highly recommend that readers explore the links in the list above for more information from people who are way wiser about these things than I am.