What does anti-racism have to do with STEM?

Victoria Thompson

by | 12.14.20

Victoria is a STEM Instructional Coach in Washington. Follow her on Twitter @VictoriaTheTech.

As more educators step up to do the work of anti-racism in their classrooms and communities – and make what John Lewis called “good trouble” – it’s essential that we seek out resources in every subject area that center the experiences of those who are Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color (BIPOC). The reasoning for this is that sharing the works of BIPOC is how you can hold space to amplify historically marginalized voices in STEM, as well as serve and support all of your students – not just the ones who traditionally fit into the mold of STEM.

Consider this: When you were a learner in K-12, when did you first learn about a person of color or a woman in STEM, and what did you learn about them?

I can remember learning about George Washington Carver in elementary school – the famed botanist who popularized peanuts – but that was my only experience learning about a person of color. I remember learning about Marie Curie in elementary school as well, but not many other women. For the vast majority of my educational career, nearly every single person I’ve learned about in STEM has been white, male or both.

You can see immediately why this is problematic. Women in STEM exist, and people of color in STEM exist. Yet, only certain populations appear to be amplified in many curricula. 

When I first started teaching, I was in a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina, and was a sixth grade science teacher. I then switched to being a fifth grade math and science teacher. Then, when I moved to Washington state, I taught in the upper school math department at an independent school. My current role is that of a STEM Integration Transformation Coach (basically, a STEM instructional coach). In all of my roles, I’ve been really intentional about focusing on equity and anti-racism in STEM education and STEM curriculum. I did a lot of work on what I call “decolonizing the curriculum,” which means that we are decentering traditionally white, male voices in STEM and lifting up the voices and work of women, people of color, and non-Eurocentric themes.

Lack of representation of women, people of color, and non-Eurocentric themes unfortunately play into misconceptions in STEM. Some wild theories that exist out there regarding STEM and achievement in STEM – like the one that claims aliens built the pyramids – originate in the racist misconception that before a certain time, Black, brown, Asian and Indigenous people couldn’t do math and couldn’t possibly have been responsible for amazing feats of engineering.

The truth, of course, is that the people throughout history who have done critical work to advance math and science come from every race and background. And we’ve got to respect and acknowledge that. To refuse to do so discredits the entire profession and the folks that got us here and inspire us to do our work each and every day. So a lot of what I did in my classroom when I was a teacher is say, “Hey, this is the theory you’ve learned. Here’s what you may not know about who actually created it – let’s make sure that we address misconceptions and learn the truth.” Now that I am a coach, I intentionally create professional development opportunities and coaching modules that encourage teachers to challenge the inherent status quo in STEM and beyond. (You can see a snapshot of my work here.)

In one of the projects I did when I was in the classroom, I work with my students to investigate lines, angles and angle relationships on buildings. I’ll say “Hey, what’s perpendicular, what’s intersecting? What’s parallel?” and we’ll point out the corresponding lines and angles, as well as the various relationships that may occur when there is a transversal. Then I turn the responsibility on them to pick a building that’s of particular interest to them, either in the community or in the world at large. I like to focus on buildings that are not Eurocentric – like the Taipei 101 in Taiwan – and I also have an extensive list of buildings and locations from all over the world for students to consider. This brings a multicultural perspective into the math classroom, which is something that normally does not happen. 

These are subtle but important ways that we can expand STEM learning, to show our Black students, our international students, our brown and Indigenous students that science and math include them, too – that there’s a place for them. Some suggestions include: recognizing that academic success and cultural relevance NEED to work together; diving deep into STEM discoveries, findings and achievements in non-Eurocentric cultures; integrating collaborative activities into your instruction, activities and assessments; and giving opportunities for student choice and agency in the classroom. 

And it works. It makes a difference. And it sometimes creates opportunities for teachers to connect with students on a new level. 

As educators, we’re not just here to teach math and move on. We need to make connections with our students and create authentic, relatable activities so we can provide guidance, light and opportunities. Often, conversations about anti-racism and multicultural work are believed to belong in the humanities, but they have a critical place in STEM, too. As STEM teachers, we have an important role to play in making sure every student feels included and empowered.

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