As 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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).
- I continue to educate myself about the interdisciplinary research investigating these disparities.
- 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.
- I avoid telling students that their experiences with racism are wrong or overblown.
- 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.
- 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: http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/incidence/fig6.htm, 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.