Monthly Archives: August 2016

Acknowledging race in the science classroom

thinkingAs a science educator, it is easy to say, “I don’t teach about diversity. That isn’t my field. Leave it to the social scientists.” I know because I’ve been there. Even if I wasn’t saying it out loud, I was thinking it.

With every institutional equity or diversity initiative, I convinced myself I contributed in other ways, supporting other aspects of the college’s mission. “Leave diversity to the experts,” I said to myself.

Back to teaching science. Diabetes is a topic I know something about. My training, my research, and my teaching, focus on how the body uses hormones as a form of communication, and diabetes provides a useful framework for teaching and learning about human physiology.

I teach my entire introductory biology course through the lens of diabetes. Students become totally hooked! The active teaching, the activities with clay and pipe cleaners (regular classroom supplies in my department), and the engaging research projects all are student favorites. Students succeed, with very low drop or fail rates (<5%), and at the conclusion of the course, they are enthusiastic about taking more biology courses (Johnson & Lownik, 2013). Things seem to be going well. Why worry?

During the introductory biology course, we spend days going over CDC data about the trends and risk factors for diabetes (CDC, 2015). Are the relationships correlations or causations? How can we use population data to think about the biological mechanism of diabetes? These are great questions for introductory students, and they totally buy in.

However, something funny happens when we start looking at these data. Diabetes is a disease that affects Black and Hispanic populations at a vastly higher rate than White populations (CDC, 2015).  Why would I talk about that?  Let’s talk about the science.  I know the science. I have spent years studying how the hormones regulate glucose (i.e., “the science”).

Quite frankly, I am scared to stray from my training. The students of color become very engaged around the topic of diabetes, and they are really intrigued by the data about the racial differences.  Many students of color speak of their beloved grandparents’ struggle with diabetes.  What if these students start asking me questions about race? As a White professor, how can I answer their questions? I know about how hormones act to change glucose levels; I don’t know why certain racial and ethnic groups are more susceptible. These students want answers about their own risk, and I feel I don’t know how to help them.

In response to my fear, I deliberately avoid the topic of race disparities around diabetes rate among different races. I ask students to spend a day researching different populations, both domestic and abroad, that are at higher risks for diabetes. We talk about socioeconomic factors, cultural factors, obesity, and food availability, but in vague and general terms. I might put up a graph to demonstrate disparities, but we never “have time” to go into an in-depth discussion. We never really talk about why these disparities exist.

As a researcher, I would never intentionally ignore a major contributing factor to a disease. Would we ever ignore smoking as a risk factor for heart attacks or lung cancer? No. Why am I completely avoiding an aspect of diabetes that makes individuals almost twice as likely to develop the disease (CDC, 2015)?


In the process of teaching to my comfort level, by ignoring race and ethnicity as risk factors for diabetes in my course, I have been:

  1. Teaching students that only certain traditional aspects of disease should be investigated and emerging or relatively newly identified risk factors do not deserve attention.

Potential long-term impact: By focusing exclusively on the role of hormones in diabetes and obesity, I ignored other mechanisms that may be connected to other evidence-based risk factors of disease, limiting the scope and creativity of questions investigated in my classroom. What if the next great discovery comes from conducting a statistical correlation on an established dataset that no one has ever thought to run? While asking students to be scientists, I reinforced old practices at the expense of new findings and approaches.

  1. Reinforcing that scientists don’t “do” diversity.

Potential long-term impact: While national science education initiatives have a strong emphasis on encouraging diversity and equity, these movements have struggled to develop at the grassroots level. Almost all White science majors struggle to articulate the importance of diversity in science. Their typical answer will be that their fields do not address these differences, when in fact, everyone has different experiences, training, and assumptions, and everyone draws different conclusions based on their previous experience. If the importance of diversity is ignored, current and future scientists will continue to surround themselves with individuals that think and act like them, instead of those with new ideas and interpretations that will challenge their thinking.

  1. Ignoring the concerns of students of color, and possibly persuading them that their questions are not important.

Potential long-term impact: By glossing over the details of racial health disparities, or simply not taking the time to understand them myself, I silenced my students, specifically those of color. Looking back, no wonder my Black and Hispanic students switched their majors to public health and sociology. I was ignoring their queries and interests.  They went to disciplines that would address their questions. Mass exodus of individuals of color represents a deletion of perspectives from the scientific community. The result is a limited set of experiences that determine the scope of future research agendas; therefore, severely limiting the ability to solve large and complex scientific problems (Page, 2007).

Over the past couple of years, I have changed the way I think about diversity in my science classroom.  The potential harm listed above was a factor in these changes; however, my greatest influence was students of color at my institution stating saying they did not feel safe or welcome on campus or in the sciences. My institution accepted the challenge, and I needed to follow suit.

Here are a few things I have done to change the atmosphere in my classroom:

  1. We now talk about racial health disparities and investigate mechanisms in my courses, using CDC data or peer-reviewed scientific articles (ex. Herman, et al., 2016).
  2. I continue to educate myself about the interdisciplinary research investigating these disparities.
  3. I acknowledged publicly to students that when it comes to talking about race and diversity, I might not get it right, might not have all the facts, and might have different personal experiences than theirs.
  4. I avoid telling students that their experiences with racism are wrong or overblown.
  5. I use an assets-based approach to teaching science. All students develop strategies to become successful, and I ask students to identify those strategies and discuss how their strategies align with a list of skills needed to become a good scientist.
  6. I avoid shutting down communication. I do everything I can to facilitate productive participation, but even this can go wrong. In the past, on the first day of class, I would ask students to introduce themselves and talk about a summer experience. This exercise is very intimidating for students that worked as day labors all summer, compared to other students that went on wonderful European vacations. Now I ask students to describe their favorite food or dessert.

While I still have much to learn, I am now a scientist that “does” diversity.


CDC (2015). Diabetes Public Health Resource. Available at:, accessed August 2, 2016.

Herman, et al. (2007). Differences in A1c by race and ethnicity among patients with impaired glucose tolerance in the diabetes prevention program. Diabetes Care, 30 (10): pp. 2453-7.

Johnson, K.M.S. and Lownik, J.C. (2013). Workshop Format Increases Scientific Knowledge, Skills, and Interest when Implemented in an Introductory Biology Course that Attracts and Retains Underrepresented Minorities.  Poster.  Experimental Biology, Boston, MA, April 20-24, 2013.  Published Abstract: FASEB J. 27:739.7

Page, S.E. (2007). The difference: how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersey).










Katie Johnson, Associate Professor of Biology at Beloit College, evaluates the effects of active teaching practices on learning attitudes and outcomes in different student populations. She has been recognized by the American Physiological Society for her work. Her laboratory research assesses the connection between obesity and hormones that regulate glucose levels in animals. She mentors a diverse group of trainees and has numerous physiology and pedagogy publications and presentations co-authored by undergraduate researchers.



Establishing rapport with your class BEFORE they are your class

shutterstock_124813237Think back to some of the best courses/semesters you’ve ever had teaching (or as a student). I can almost guarantee that you fondly remember several of the students who were in the class. You would recognize them today even if you have had thousands of students since they last sat in your classroom. You probably remember specific interactions that you had. Maybe (after they were out of your class and preferably graduated, you even accepted their Facebook friend requests) Why? What made those students so memorable? Maybe it was a common academic interest or passion, some sort of unique personality trait, or maybe some unexplainable, unseen force that developed organically that you can’t pinpoint and think you can never purposefully recreate in future courses. Well, I’m here to tell you that you just might be able to recreate it. In fact, you can actually manufacture it for your future courses. While it does sound like cheating, it will help make your class successful for all of the other students as well.

With the beginning of the fall semester approaching, the first few days of your course will set the stage for the next 16 weeks. Obviously being well-prepared with the syllabus, course objectives, and course schedule well organized and outlined for the students is necessary as Angelina eloquently outlined in the previous article. Further outlining the expectations of yourself as the instructor and the students as the learners will help to start your course on the right trajectory. But a classroom success strategy that is easy to overlook, especially in the hectic first days of the semester, is building an early rapport between yourself and the students. While building rapport with the students comes more easily for some than for others (we all have that colleague who seems to naturally have the right combination of wit, charm, and caring and who never seems to have a problem engaging students), numerous factors contribute to its development, and nearly all of them can be planned for and controlled, manufactured if you will. I did not realize to what extent this was true until very recently though.

Generally, I have a good rapport with most of my classes and my Individual Development and Educational Assessment (IDEA) evaluation scores seem to indicate that is the case. However, the impetus for this article came after I struggled through my recent summer session course. I was left questioning my teaching abilities after every one of the 20, 2-hour-long class meeting times. Since I had taught the course multiple times, in the same time slot, and used all of the same strategies and more in attempts to connect and engage with the students like I successfully had in previous courses, I was baffled as to what the difference might be. Why was this one section so much less engaged, less likely to ask questions, less enthusiastic about the various activities, less likely to stop by my office, and less likely to e-mail with non-course related physiology questions? I had done everything that the literature recommends to develop rapport with students, but after my own post-hoc course evaluation and some serious introspection, I have an idea of what went wrong. I had not laid the ground work to build rapport with even one single student BEFORE the class began. While great articles do exist on building rapport in the classroom (see Meyers 2009 and Buskist & Saville 2001), few of them discuss how to build rapport before you’re in the classroom. It’s easier than you realize.

Thinking back to some of the best classes I’ve ever taught, I realized that I have always had at least one “go-to” student from the very first day of class, a student who I knew was reasonably comfortable speaking up in front of the whole class. I would use this student as a bellwether for the whole class in the first couple of days, posing questions directly to him or her and asking for comments and feedback. Inevitably, this would show other students that it was okay to speak up, make comments, and ask questions. Usually this student is pretty outgoing, but not always. Usually this student is good academically, but not always. Sometimes this student could be defined as the “class clown,” but not always. Almost always, however, I have known or at least communicated with this student before the semester has begun. Sometimes the student was in a previous class I taught or was my advisee, but often it is just a student who had trouble registering or had a question that required coming to my office before the first day of class. How did these students become my go-to students? What did I do to make these my go-to students? What makes them different? I have no idea honestly, but something about that first interaction, however innocuous, enables it to occur. Considering my past go-to students, I’ve come up with the three main ways that you can make sure that this interaction occurs in your class.

  1. During the advising and registration period (often the semester before), encourage students that you know to enroll in your class.
    • If you’re an advisor for students who might take your course this is actually pretty easy. Identify several students who might be able to fit your course into their schedules. Encourage them. “I really would enjoy it if you were able to take my course.” I have found this to be a very effective way to get students who are already comfortable speaking with me into my class. Not an advisor? E-mail students you’ve had in other courses or you’ve worked with in some other capacity.
  2. Prior to the semester start, someone is bound to e-mail or stop by your office to ask about your course, tell you he/she is having trouble registering, ask about a textbook, etc. Use this as an opportunity.
    • Obviously in these situations learn the student’s name, but also ask a couple other questions. “How’s your semester going?” “How was your summer?” “What makes you interested in this class?” “Is that shirt from that local 5k? You like running?” These interactions might seem like meaningless chit-chat, but they can really lay the foundations for classroom rapport later on. Latch on to anything the student says that you might be able to use later in class. Now you know you have a runner that went to the beach over summer. Great! You teach a physiology class and now you have a wealth of information that can make your lecture relevant to that student…and likely many more. Mention the student by name when you bring up the topic.
  3. Once you receive your class roster, look at it! E-mail the students even if it is weeks before the course starts.
    • Scan through your roster looking for students you’ve had previously or otherwise know. Send them individual e-mails and tell them you’re glad they’ll be in your class. Look at each student’s major, minor, even club affiliations if you have access. Take note of anything you can use later. Craft an e-mail to all the students to introduce yourself. “Hi! I’m Ed Merritt and I’ll be your professor for exercise physiology. I’m really looking forward to meeting everyone. Looking at the roster I see we have several nutrition majors in this class. Remind me to tell you a story about the time I ate a doughnut right before a hard workout. I also see we have a British literature major. Don’t worry. I’ll find a good story for you too! Let me know if you have any questions or concerns before the first day, otherwise I’ll see you soon!”

These three strategies alone will almost always insure that you have a go-to student for the first day of class. Use this connection. Call on him or her by name and show the class that you care about that student. The class won’t know that this is your go-to student, but once you have your go-to student engaged the rest of the class is much more likely to engage. Rapport is contagious, and once you have it with the class, teaching the material is much more enjoyable, and the student outcomes are much better. And hopefully you won’t have to suffer through a semester questioning your teaching abilities after every class.

Good luck with the upcoming semester!



Meyers SA. Do Your Students Care Whether You Care about Them? College Teaching, v57 n4 p205-210. 2009.

Buskist W, Saville BK. Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing teaching and learning. APS Observer. p12-13. 2001.


PECOP Merritt picture



Ed Merritt is an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Ed received his doctorate in Kinesiology from the University of Texas at Austin and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Cellular and Integrative Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Ed’s research focuses on the molecular underpinnings of skeletal muscle atrophy after trauma and with aging, but he is also equally involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning and melding educational outreach activities with service learning.