Special Report

Here’s How to Make Science More Relevant for Students of Color

By Ileana Najarro — November 23, 2021 5 min read
Chemistry teacher Nina Hike poses for a portrait in her classroom at George Westinghouse College Prep on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 in Chicago, IL. Through her curriculum, Hike highlights scientific discoveries by women and people of color, and also teaches students about environmental racism.
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Nina Hike used to consider herself to be a traditional high school science teacher. She gave lectures full of abstract formulas that rarely if ever tied directly with the lives of her students of color.

But following the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, her then students had questions about racism and the national calls for social justice. So when Hike started teaching 10th grade chemistry at George Westinghouse College Prep in Chicago, in the fall of 2020, she felt it was time to shift gears and turn her science class into a space where students could explore the intersection of racism and science and, more broadly, how science is a part of their everyday lives.

“They want to understand it, they want to know more about it, and just being able to do laboratory investigations and kind of see the science come alive. I think that is what keeps the excitement going,” she said. “But then we’re connecting it back to what does this have to do with you and your family, your community, and just really trying to make those authentic connections to their lives, I think that’s what it’s really about.”

Making science class more culturally relevant is just one of the strategies K-12 science teachers are using to better engage students of color at a time when Black and Hispanic people remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math careers and national discussions continue on how to make education overall more equitable.

Connect science class to the real world

Last year in Hike’s class, students studied the chemistry behind drug tests, discussed the disproportionate ways drug laws hurt Black people, and learned how marijuana dispensaries are disproportionately owned by white people. They learned about people of color’s scientific contributions. And they explored the chemistry of environmental contaminants to contextualize efforts by residents of Chicago’s South Side to keep a metal scrapyard from relocating to their neighborhood and further polluting their air.

Hike shared with her students that she grew up in the predominantly Black Altgeld Gardens community in the southeast side of Chicago where, beginning in the 1970s, Hazel Johnson, known as the “mother of environmental justice,” fought against landfills in the area that polluted the air, water, and land. Her students then looked up their own ZIP codes on the federal Environmental Protection Agency website to identify any nearby factories.

When students found neighborhoods where lead had been detected in the soil, for instance, they learned about the primary uses of lead and ways to remediate the soil using scientific processes to remove heavy metals.

“As teachers, we just have to be willing to be learners and be willing to look at the intersection of society, history, and things that are happening so that we can help them not repeat themselves,” Hike said.

Hike doesn’t expect all her students to pursue STEM careers. But she hopes they become lifelong learners who appreciate scientific inquiry and how it applies to the world around them. She points, for instance, to a student who took pride in being able to recognize chemical ingredients on the food labels in her local grocery store.

“You may not be paying attention to it, but science is happening all around you,” she tells her students.

Exposing students to real-world applications of science lessons and engaging their passions in doing so helps undo the phobia of science being too hard, said Jonte Lee, a physics and chemistry teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School in the District of Columbia.

For instance, if a student loves video games, teachers can show them the science, technology, engineering, and math that go into that game.

As teachers, we just have to be willing to be learners and be willing to look at the intersection of society, history, and things that are happening so that we can help them not repeat themselves.

Even an integrated curriculum that connects science to other subjects can help, he added, especially considering how subjects tied to standardized tests, such as reading and math, tend to get more attention in elementary school than science does.

Systemic changes are also needed to further engage students

Yet while culturally relevant science classes may pique the interest of students of color in STEM subjects, deeper changes in how science is taught and tested may be needed. Science assessments, for one, must better match this type of curriculum, Lee said.

And students need more teachers of color—both in the sciences and overall. Lee noted that Black men, for instance, only make up 2 percent of the American teacher workforce.

That’s a problem because students who have opportunities to learn from people in STEM and science teaching who share their cultural background are better able to see a future for themselves in that space, said Sharon Delesbore, an assistant principal at Hightower High School in Missouri City, Texas, and the president of the Association for Multicultural Science Education.

But underlying efforts to diversify the science-teacher workforce and change testing and curriculum is the need to first care enough to build relationships with students of color, Delesbore said.

“I think what’s really important is that teachers actually need to understand their community,” she said. “If we already come into a situation and we already feel like the students that we’re servicing don’t have what they need in order to be successful, then that bias and that barrier is going to hinder how we communicate with our kids.”

Give students agency

In order to give her students more agency and a sense of belonging in the science field, Hike lets students design their own experiments, ask questions about instruction methods, and offer ideas on how to make the classroom environment better for learning.

To help science teachers address disparities revealed by the pandemic, the National Science Teaching Association late last year created a miniseries of webinars focused on creating equitable opportunities in a remote learning environment, said Alicia Conerly, the association’s division director of multicultural/equity in science education.

This year, the organization continues with another set of webinars on promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in science and STEM teaching, which runs through December. Among the topics covered are: how to address social justice in science class, the importance of integrating science and language instruction to help English-learner students in particular, and what social-emotional learning looks like in science class.

While Hike experimented with topics like environmental racism last year, she continues to explore ways to better connect her lessons to students’ lives this year and beyond. In fact, some of her students will be presenting their findings on chemical contaminants in Chicago at a local university.

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Here’s How to Make Science More Relevant for Students of Color


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