Early in my career I recall anxiously awaiting my appointments during parents’ night. Each science teacher had been assigned a table and some chairs in the school cafeteria. We may have lacked privacy but at least there was comfort in knowing that colleagues were nearby. I sat patiently at my table, giving my most welcoming smile as parents walked by with their children in tow, searching for a particular teacher. Soon a father stopped in front of my table. His daughter was not one of my students, so I expected that he needed help finding the right teacher.
“It’s good to see one of us here”, he said to me.
This wasn’t what I expected so after a beat I replied with the first words that came to me mind, “there aren’t enough”.
The father smiled and moved along, his daughter following all the while looking slightly embarrassed.
Unlike the other teachers in the cafeteria that evening, I am Black.
That parents’ night was in 2008, and little has changed since. It often surprises people to learn that I never had a Black teacher at any point during my education. It doesn’t surprise me when my students tell me that I am their first. This is even more apparent when considering STEM teachers. A recent CBC article points out that Black people remain proportionally underrepresented among the scientific community in the United States, and there’s no reason to assume otherwise in my home of Canada.1
My classroom is diverse in ways that are both visible and invisible; in terms of race, gender, sexuality, religion and more, and so is yours. This diversity can never be reflected by a single teacher, but we can strive to better represent and celebrate student identities as a community of educators. This begins by recognizing which voices, faces, and names we highlight in STEM fields, and consequently in our classrooms. It also means understanding why representation matters. You’ve likely heard the expression, “if you can see it, you can be it”, and unfortunately even in 2021 most of our Black students never see themselves as scientists. This elicits the paradoxical question of, “are Black people underrepresented in STEM because we don’t see ourselves there, or do we not see ourselves there because we’re underrepresented?” I believe the answer is that both are true, and that both can be addressed by making a conscious effort to expose our students to more diverse STEM role models.
YouTubers/science communicators Gregory Brown and Mitchell Moffit, collectively known as AsapSCIENCE, are members of the LGBTQ+ community. In 2020 they put out a fantastic video titled, “We Need to Talk About Diversity in Science”. I’ve since used it as a starting point for discussions of diversity and representation in STEM in all my classes. As they watch, I ask my students to carefully consider the following three questions:
- Are you subscribed to or do you regularly watch any science YouTubers?
- Do you feel that you are represented by your teachers? By other role models? If not, why not?
- Had you considered "representation" in media before someone pointed it out to you? For example, had you noticed or thought about scientists in movies usually looking a certain way? Or that certain groups of people are usually seen in certain roles?
If students are comfortable doing so, I encourage them to share their answers to any or all of these questions after I share some of my own thoughts. To summarize typical responses:
- Pretty mixed. Some do and some don’t.
- In one way or another the answer is usually “no”, whether in terms of race, gender, or any other aspect of their identity, most of the students who have shared their thoughts have felt unrepresented in some significant way by their teachers and other role models.
- Yes, they had considered this before being asked directly.
This tells me that our students seek out role models and influencers in fields that interest them, and they do notice when they don’t see themselves in these roles. I did too, and if I had been of a slightly different mindset or not had support in key moments during my formative years, I could have easily gone from simply noticing that I was the only Black student in the chemistry class or the only Black science teacher in the cafeteria to deciding that I wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place, especially when things got tough.
The diversification of STEM and STEM education is not going to happen overnight, but we all move it forward with what we do today. It is incumbent to us as educators to acknowledge and celebrate the different identities in our classrooms. We remain quick to highlight J.J. Thomson, John Dalton, Neils Bohr, and even Democritis (all European, men) when we discuss great contributors to chemistry, but what about George Washington Carver, St. Elmo Brady, Nancy T. Chang, and Acharya Kanad? If we’re entirely honest with ourselves and with our students, it means acknowledging that these exclusions in the scientific canon are not accidental.
Years ago, a Black father felt joy at seeing me in a space where we and so many other identities are still underrepresented. Now, every one of us must endeavor to make academic spaces not only safe but inviting. We must help all our students to see that not only can they and those like them thrive there, but they already are also.
1. Mortillaro, N. (2021) ‘Black scientists around the world are calling for action, equality and representation.’ CBC News Feb 26, 2021. Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/black-scientists-quirks-1.5926310