Bringing Black History Month to STEM Classes

By Jordan Moeny — February 05, 2015 3 min read
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Black History Month is reasonably well-established in language arts and social studies curricula. Come February, English teachers pull out poems by Phyllis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou; history teachers take on the civil rights movement or abolition. In other subjects, however, Black History Month tends to be overlooked—but that doesn’t mean it has to be.

Given the underrepresentation of minorities, particularly black students, in STEM fields, an increased focus on black scientists and mathematicians could have a huge impact. On Scientific American, biologist Danielle Lee writes, “Put simply, members of under-represented communities want to see themselves in these roles. They want to know who the achievers are.”

In the sciences, there are of course the notable examples to draw from. Noted botanist and inventor George Washington Carver, known in particular for his work with peanuts, is one of the most-mentioned black scientists. Astronaut and doctor Mae Jemison tends to pop as the sole representative of black women. (Jemison herself was inspired in part by one of the few black female role models she saw represented in society as a child: Lieutenant Uhura of “Star Trek.”)

But while Jemison and Carver are both certainly worth studying, they are far from the only ones. Daniel Hale Williams is a natural fit for a unit on human anatomy—he’s generally recognized as conducting the first open-heart surgery, as well as opening the first interracial hospital in the United States.

Elsewhere in the field, Vivien Thomas is credited with developing the Blalock-Taussig shunt, a device used to correct a heart defect that restricts the flow of oxygen. Thomas’s story—that of a high school-educated black man who managed to make a name for himself at a then-segregated John Hopkins—is fascinating enough that it was the subject of an HBO movie starring Mos Def and Alan Rickman.

A lesson on bioethics, meanwhile, could hinge on the story of a figure who was unwittingly of the most important individuals in medicine: Henrietta Lacks, whose body’s cells are better known as HeLa cells and have been used in the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, in vitro fertilization, and more. HeLa cells have been undeniably beneficial to modern medicine, but they were obtained after her death, without her family’s permission or knowledge, opening a discussion about ethics in medicine.

There are also countless lists of other black scientists and inventors online: a timeline from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Faces of Science website, and this list on Infoplease are a start; the blog Urban Science also points to dozens of individuals, past and present, who made or are making strides in the field. (There’s also always Wikipedia, if you’re so inclined.) As Lee writes, having students do reports on black scientists can also be a way to help them learn about contemporary scientists who, despite not achieving widespread fame, have made significant contributions.

Working Black History Month into a math class can be a little trickier. Pressed to make sure students learn the material, most math teachers don’t dwell on history lessons. Even so, the story of Katherine Johnson, the NASA research mathematician whose calculations were critical to the success of the moon landing, could be used as an example of how math can be applied in real-world situations.

The same goes for Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught astronomer, inventor, and mathematician whose calculations led him to create a series of almanacs. Banneker also created the first American-made clock and helped lay out the boundaries of Washington D.C.

Even a short introduction to Johnson, Banneker, or one of the other black mathematicians or scientists throughout history could provide potential role models for black students who may not see many successful STEM leaders who look like them.

Of course, there’s no reason to limit all of this to February. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson turns down Black History Month talks, describing such invitations as “the pigeonholing of me as a black scientist versus an American scientist.” The month is intended to encourage recognition of a group traditionally excluded from the curriculum as a whole, but ideally these figures would be brought up throughout the year, not just for 28 days—that is, they would be recognized for their contributions to STEM overall, not simply their contributions as black women and men.

Image: Left to right: Mathematician Katherine Johnson (NASA), astronaut Mae Jemison (NASA), and surgeon Vivien Thomas (Public Domain).

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.