“I don’t teach about race. Leave it to the social scientists. They are trained to talk and teach about this stuff. I wouldn’t even know where to start.” I am embarrassed to admit it, but there were times in my life I thought this, and I know I am not alone.
As a science educator, it is easy to stick close to our training as scientists. Scientists teaching science is normalized, largely unquestioned, and safe. Early in my career as an educator, with every institutional equity initiative announcement, I easily convinced myself that I supported my students in other ways. “Leave diversity to the experts.”
What about my expertise? Diabetes is a topic I know well after more than 15 years of training, research, and teaching. It was easy to incorporate this topic into all of my courses. In fact, I teach my entire introductory biology course using humans as a model and diabetes as a way to connect many of the systems. Most students know someone with diabetes. Their personal experience with the disease, complemented by a continuous barrage of hands-on, inquiry-based laboratory activities in this intro course, completely hooks the students! They succeed, with very low drop or fail rates (<5%). At the conclusion of the course, students 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 Latinx 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 hormones regulate glucose (i.e. “the science”).
Frankly, I was scared to stray from my training. The students of color really engage the topic of diabetes, intrigued by the data indicating racial differences. Many students of color speak of their beloved grandparents’ struggle with diabetes. What if students started asking me questions about race? As a white professor, how could I answer their questions? I know how hormones act to change glucose levels; I don’t know why certain racial and ethnic groups are more susceptible to diabetes. Students want answers about their own risk, and I didn’t know how to help them.
Looking back now, in response to my fear, I deliberately avoided discussions of race disparities. During the introductory biology course, we talked 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 “had time” to engage the topic. We never really talked 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 lung cancer? Why completely avoid race as a risk factor for diabetes, even though some individuals are almost twice as likely to develop the disease (CDC, 2015)?
By ignoring race and ethnicity as risk factors for diabetes in my course, I taught my students:
- Only traditional aspects of disease are worthy of investigation and emerging or relatively newly identified risk factors do not deserve attention.
Potential long-term impact: Reinforcing old practices comes at the expense of new findings and approaches. Focusing exclusively on the role of hormones in diabetes ignores other potential mechanisms, specifically those related to race, limiting the scope and creativity of questions investigated in my classroom and the scientific community.
- 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. In my experience, most white science undergraduate students cannot articulate the importance of diversity of thought and experience in science. Students typically miss the mark when they emphasize that science is “objective,” and therefore, unbiased. In fact, every scientist has different experiences, training, and assumptions, resulting in different approaches to asking questions and drawing conclusions. Diversifying these approaches is essential for innovation. If the importance of diversity in science continues to be misunderstood, current and future scientists will surround themselves with individuals that think and act like them, limiting new ideas, interpretations, and innovations.
- To ignore the concerns and questions of students of color.
Potential long-term impact: By glossing over the details of racial health disparities and not taking the time to understand them myself, I silenced the legitimate health concerns of my students of color. It should not be a surprise that many of my black and Latinx students switched their majors to public health and sociology. I was ignoring their queries and interests. They went to disciplines that addressed 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).
To address these problematic gaps in my pedagogy, I continually challenge the way I think about diversity and equity in my classroom and make impactful changes. Avoiding potential harm to my students was a factor in making these changes; however, my greatest influence was students of color at my institution stating that they did not feel safe or welcome in the sciences (Johnson & Mantina, 2016).
Here are a few first steps I have taken to change the atmosphere in my classroom:
- We now talk about racial health disparities and investigate mechanisms related to these disparities 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 acknowledge publicly to students that when we discuss race and diversity, I might not get it right, might not have all the facts, and might have different personal experiences than theirs.
- Prior to larger class conversations about race, I collect input from students of color about how they might approach these conversations.
- I never ask a student to speak on behalf of their race or identity, only to speak to their own experiences. I never force a student to speak on the topic of race, period. However, reflective writing or small group discussions are helpful to bring ideas to the forefront.
- I avoid telling students that their experiences with racism are wrong or overblown.
- I use an assets-based approach to teaching science. Students develop strategies to become successful by identifying the skills and information they bring to the classroom based on their unique experiences and background.
- I challenge myself to continue to evolve my approaches to active learning and engaging students. For example, in my early years of teaching, to establish an interactive environment on the first day of class, students introduced themselves and talked about a summer experience to a small group. However, students that worked as day labors found this exercise intimidating when sharing with students that went on wonderful European vacations. I now prefer to ask students to describe their favorite food or dessert.
I acknowledge that issues of race, equity, and diversity are multi-faceted and nuanced, and purposefully, this description is a broad overview of the topic. I still have a lot to learn and do, but 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.