De Anza Community College, which is in the San Francisco Bay area, is one of the largest single-campus community colleges in the United States, with about 23,000 students. The student body is quite diverse, with no one ethnic or racial group forming a majority of students. During a plenary presentation at the conference, Jeff Schinske, professor of biology at De Anza Community College, and three current or former students — Amanda Snyder, Jahana Kaliangara, and Monica Cardenas — described an intervention designed to enhance students’ sense of belonging in STEM classrooms with diverse student populations.
Students are constantly receiving both implicit and explicit messages about who scientists are from numerous sources, including the media, educational and governmental institutions, and scientists themselves, Schinske observed. “These messages we send about scientists are received, whether we mean them to be received or not, and they do matter.” In particular, if students do not themselves identify with the images of scientists we convey, this could decrease their sense of belonging and ultimately impact interest and success in STEM. (Video: Day2PMSchinske2 IMAGE OF SCIENTIST)
Day2PMSchinske2 IMAGE OF SCIENTIST
In addressing this, however, faculty members may be reluctant to engage in frank discussions about race, gender, and identity with their students. But they would likely feel comfortable having discussions about issues that benefit their coverage of the content while also sending an explicit message about diversity and equity. To facilitate these types of discussions, Schinske has developed a set of weekly exercises called Scientist Spotlights for a non-majors biology course. For example, one such exercise started as follows:
Lawrence David is a Filipino-American biologist currently working as a professor at Duke University and Harvard. His work focuses on the trillions of bacteria that live on and in the human body, and he is particularly interested in how bacteria contribute to health and disease in the developing world, including in Bangladesh and other non-western areas. He also helped start a website to showcase illustrated, science-related poetry (http://www.sciku.org/).
Students were provided with links to an autobiographical podcast by David and a Nature article he co-authored. They then were asked to write a 350-word or more reflection on what they had learned about David. Suggested topics were:
- What was most interesting or most confusing about the podcast and article?
- What can you learn from the podcast/article about the relationships between our body and bacteria?
- What does this podcast/article tell you about the types of people that do science?
- What new questions do you have after hearing the story?
Ten Scientist Spotlights were used over the course of an 11-week quarter are a way to make the equity message explicit while also conveying some of the content of the course, Schinske said.
To assess the effects of this intervention, Schinske and several student research assistants used essay prompts and survey questions to test five hypotheses:
- Students would initially hold stereotypical images of scientists and would initially report a lack of personal connections with scientists.
- After completing Scientist Spotlights, students would hold more non-stereotypical images of scientists.
- After completing Scientist Spotlights, students would feel they could personally relate to at least one scientist.
- Students would tend to cite gender/racial-matched scientists as those to whom they could most closely relate.
- Self-reported ability to relate to a scientist would correlate with achievement in class.
The essay prompt was “Based on what you know now, describe the types of people that do science. If possible, refer to specific scientists and what they tell you about the types of people that do science.” The survey question was “I know of one or more important scientists to whom I can personally relate,” which was responded to through a four-point Likert scale, followed by a short essay explanation. The descriptions of scientists in essay responses were coded either as “stereotypes” (Mead and Metraux, 1957) or as “nonstereotypes,” yielding an interrater reliability of 0.86 for the number of stereotypes recorded per paper and 0.89 for the number of nonstereotypes recorded per paper. By the time of the conference, Schinske and his student associates had analyzed 600 essays from 150 students and 192 essays from 48 students in a quasi-control class that did not do the Scientist Spotlights.
By the end of the quarter, the students completing Scientist Spotlights showed a decrease in the number of stereotypical descriptions of scientists and a very large increase in nonstereotypical descriptions (Figure 2-1). In the quasi-control class, stereotypical descriptions also decreased, though not as much, while the nonstereotypical descriptions remained at a very low level.
Day2PMSchinske6 STUDENT ASPIRATIONS
Exposure to the Scientist Spotlights changed the responses of students in ways that can be determined qualitatively. For example, in response to the essay prompt about the types of people who do science, one male Latino student wrote (Video: Day2PMSchinske6 STUDENT ASPIRATIONS) at the beginning of the quarter, “The types of people that do science are very patient and passionate people.” At the end of the quarter, he wrote:
The types of people that do science are all kinds of people. What I have learned throughout this course is that it is possible to be a scientist under any circumstances, from poverty to being from a different country to having a stereotypical assumption about a person, for example a cheerleader. Anyone can be a scientist if they want to. One thing all scientists we learned about had in common was that they weren’t interested in science until something sparked their interest.
Another wrote at the end of the quarter:
Before I learned about scientists in this class, I thought scientists were like ‘nerds’ or what they show in movies. . . . However, through all the research I’ve done in this class, scientists are just normal people like myself. They love to learn new things, they have a life outside the laboratory, they are fun, and like to have fun. My opinion of people that do science has completely changed thanks to this class.
The Scientist Spotlights also enhanced the relatability of scientists compared to the quasi-control class. One student wrote of a transgender scientist the class studied:
I can relate the most to Ben Barres because of the obvious discrimination he received as a woman. Being the older sister of a very bright brother, I am often compared to him and overlooked for my intelligence. Unless it comes from him, my opinion is just that of a woman.
Schinske and his research colleagues found that the ability to relate to a specific scientist correlated with higher course grades, with a particularly strong effect in men and in Black, Latino, Native American, Filipino, and Pacific Islander students. An unexpected finding was that there was little gender or racial matching for the scientists to whom students related. Thus, hypotheses one through three and five in the above list were confirmed, while hypothesis four was not confirmed. “Some people could look at this and say, ‘Well, gender and race don’t matter; we can just have all white males as Scientist Spotlights,” said Schinske. “Of course, I think that we all know intuitively that that’s not true. We can see from that last quote . . . that that person related to somebody who was actually a transgendered male. Even though [the student had] a different gender, they related because of the shared bias that they had both experienced, so having this diversity actually is important.” Indeed, several responses from students indicated that gender or racial matching was very important to some students. For example, one African American student wrote of learning about an African American scientist, “That, as a fellow African American, brought me joy, as it shows that African Americans are no longer abiding to the negative stigma we have.”
Day2PMSchinske8 EXPERIENCES REDUCE STEREOTYPES
Since Scientist Spotlights complement course content, require almost no class time, and are simple to grade, they provide an enticing inroad to addressing equity directly in STEM classes, Schinske said. The initial research results also point to some intriguing future directions in research. (Viedo: Day2PMSchinske8 EXPERIENCES REDUCE STEREOTYPES) Student responses could be compared to results of quantitative surveys of stereotypes and identity. Future research could look for connections between shifts in stereotypes or identity and intent to take additional science classes. Longitudinal data could be collected to evaluate retention and ongoing impacts, such as reductions in equity gaps. And faculty development experiences could be designed to disseminate and test Scientist Spotlights in other class contexts.