I teach science. Can I be a multicultural educator


In recent deliberations about the role of Affirmative Action in higher education student recruitment, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia asked “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” This statement reflects larger narratives that claim objectivity across STEM. We often hear statements like the following:

“Science is a neutral subject.”
“Science has nothing to do with culture or politics.”
“It’s an objective discipline based on a fixed body of knowledge that has been proven over time.”

Most of all, we hear that science is not appropriate for multicultural teaching.


None of those statements are actually valid, but they are often presented as if they were absolutely truthful. In fact, too often, science is misrepresented as a neutral apolitical subject, suggesting that advancing multicultural education in science education is unnecessary, inapplicable, or impossible. To the contrary, in order to open and extend fruitful learning opportunities for all students/learners, being a science multicultural educator is important, relevant, and doable.

One way educators approach science from a multicultural perspective is by highlighting particular people or achievements from various racial, ethnic, gendered, or age groups. Usually this strategy is used to diversify a science curriculum that typically elevates the primacy of a Eurocentric and male focus. While this approach has some value in diversifying the curriculum, in the absence of a critical stance to teaching science, the approach can fall short of a more comprehensive understanding of the role of multicultural education in science.

In order to deepen and broaden this understanding, multicultural educators generally engage the following stances when implementing science in the classroom:

(a) Attention to and use of culture towards understanding the cultural contexts that shape science;

(b) An equity-orientation that facilitates access to science for all students; and

(c) Efforts to leverage the skills and content of science to advance justice in schools and communities.  

These stances are not mutually exclusive, but each serves as a general way to think about facilitating multicultural education practices in science. Discussed below is a brief description of how science has been facilitated through culture, equity, and justice.

Culture

In many Westernized nations such as the U.S., Western views of science and science education are typically foregrounded and have become normalized as the only ways to conceptualize how science is defined, practiced, and valued (Durodoye, 2003; Hess, 1995; Petty & Narayan, 2012; Tabak, 2005). Compare your own beliefs about what science is with this description of Indigenous Science by the World Indigenous Science Network How are Western science and Indigenous science similar? Different? 

As a result of recognizing the limited perspective of Western science, multicultural educators take the time to expand students’ worldview about science. For example, they might focus on how specific cultural groups think about the role of science and how a society shapes the ways science is practiced. This approach can be historical or contemporary. Multicultural educators might further use cultural ways of knowing from various groups or use cultural artifacts to teach different concepts. For example, the Cradle Board Project is an interdisciplinary resource for teachers based on Native American knowledge in several disciplines, principally science (see also Bazin, Tamez, et al., 2002; Wee, Harbor, & Shepardson, 2006).

Another way that multicultural educators position culture as foundational to understanding science is by determining and leveraging students’ backgrounds, experiences, and familiar cultural/social referents. NAME’s 2015 Exemplary Multicultural Educator Award winner, Chris Emdin, is an example of a teacher who helps his students build knowledge and proficiency in science concepts through the use of Hip Hop. 

Equity

Copious research points to the reality that certain groups, based on gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and race are either unfairly privileged and predetermined to “fit” what it means to be a scientist  (e.g., Drew, 1995). Consequently, some researchers and practitioners examine the pipeline issue whereby mostly Anglo Euro White males successfully matriculate through the school system and into science careers, as the only capable doers of science.  An equity-orientation includes attention to issues of access and the over or under representation of particular groups in science classrooms and careers, based on gender, race, socioeconomic status, and language.

In response, multicultural educators adopt an equity-orientation to their teaching to ensure that students from all types of backgrounds and circumstances are introduced to quality science experiences (Lee & Buxton, 2010). In turn, teachers expect that such experiences prompt and sustain students’ engagement, as they learn that they have the potential to do science and not a subject to be feared. Multicultural educators focused on equity provide intentional inquiry-driven opportunities for students systematically marginalized or excluded outright to develop their capacities to competently engage in science as scientists and by viewing science as useful in daily life (Feinstein, Allen, & Jenkins, 2013). 

Justice

Building on the attention that equity-oriented teachers give to representation in and preparation for science, a justice-focus provides students additional tools and perspectives. These tools and perspectives enable students to identify, assess, and critique issues in science through science. They are further able to apply their learning towards recognizing and addressing injustices and inequities within the discipline of science and society as a whole.

Although science can be a tool for justice, it has been used as means to perpetuate injustices and deficit perspectives about various groups of people (Durodye, 2003 ). For instance, despite the fact that race is not biological but a political and social construction, people still believe or use race as a fact of biology or genetics to discriminate, perpetuate biases, and institutionalize racism. The social construction of race is a prime example of the non-neutrality of science. A deep understanding of the power of science to be (mis)used to determine social and cultural norms is a key step in advancing justice. One instance of how this is possible comes from the PBS series Race: The Power of an Illusion, as a biology teacher works with his students to investigate the genetic viability of what makes humans different, including testing the validity of race. Watch Episode 1:The Difference Between Us.

Another example is the effort to connect multicultural education with environmental justice. The environmental justice movement addresses the problem that people of color and poor people are most likely to live in communities with high levels of toxins, and that caring for the environment is a social justice issue. The Three Circles Center for Multicultural Environmental Education, often represented at NAME, fuses science, culture, and social justice in its work.

Although issues of science and justice are not limited to race or environmental education, these examples illustrate how multicultural science educators forge the type of inquiry through their discipline that challenges students to develop towards a more justice-oriented undertaking in science learning.

In the overall final analysis, strong multicultural educators embody a cultural, equity-oriented, and justice stance in their teaching of their content area. No curriculum content is neutral. Curriculum is not free from a point of view and a set of values that shape how subject matter is constructed.  Neither are teachers who teach the curriculum.


Next steps: To explore these ideas further within science, we suggest you:

Review

Chris Emdin’s videos on his website, in addition to the video mentioned above, as well as his other work (Emdin, 2010). Identify how he addresses the culture, equity, and justice orientations in his teaching of science. Note specific instances and support with evidence. Compare your responses to others.


Reflect on the following questions:

  • What image do you have of who makes a real scientist? From where did you get this impression? How has this image been challenged or reinforced over time?
  • For better or worse, what overt or hidden messages about science do your students receive by the way you teach your curriculum?  
  • How do you learn about your students and connect the relevance of science to their daily lives?
  • How do you affirm students’ identities as scientists? Do you feel this way about the capability of all your students regardless of where you teach (school or community) or where your students come from?
  • Have you ever deeply explored science from a non-Western perspective? How might doing so make you a stronger science educator?

Read


Examine the following additional curriculum resources*:

Bigelow, B., & Swinehart, T. (2014). A people’s curriculum for the earth. Milwaukee, WI.: Rethinking Schools.

Articles and lessons for educators, by educators, featuring ecological/environmental issues which are adversely affecting the Earth and the political, social, economic, and cultural contexts shaping these concerns.

 Race the Power of an Illusion

A companion to the video series, this PBS website includes activities, resources, and expert reports on science, in particular regarding the construction of race and use of race in medicine/health fields.

Grant, C. A. , & Sleeter, C. E. (2013). Turning on Learning: Five Approaches to Multicultural Teaching Plans for Race, Class, Gender, and Disability (5th edition). New York: Wiley.

A book dedicated to multicultural lesson planning in content areas, including science.

Teaching Tolerance, Summer, 2013.

An issue focused on science and justice.  

* Resources should always be critiqued. These are offered as a means of extending the discussion for those who desire to start or deepen their contemplation about science as a multicultural educator.


References

Bazin, M., Tamez, M., & Exploratorium Teacher Institute. (2002). Math and science across cultures: Activities and investigations from the Exploratorium.  New York: The New Press.

Drew, D. E. (1995). Class, race, and science education. In S. W. Rothstein (Ed.). Culture and race in American schools, 55—72. Westport, CT.: Greenwood.

Durodoye, B. A. (2003). The science of race in education. Multicultural Perspectives, 5(2), 10—16.

Emdin, C. (2010). Urban science education for the Hip-Hop generation. Boston, MA: Sense.

Feinstein, N. W., Allen, S., & Jenkins, E. (2013). Outside the pipeline: Reimagining science education for nonscientists. Science, 340, 314—316.

Hess, D. J. (1995). Science and technology in a multicultural world: The cultural politics of facts and artifacts. New York: Columba University.

Lee, O., Buxton, A. (2010). Diversity and equity in science education: Research, policy, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Petty, L. L., & Narayan, R. (2012). Investigating secondary science teachers' beliefs about multiculturalism and its implementation in the classroom. Multicultural Perspectives 14(4): 212-219.

Tabak, I. (2005). Are disciplinary distinctions pertinent to multicultural education?: A view from science. Multicultural Perspectives, 7(4), 33—38.

Wee, B., Harbor, J. M., & Shepardson, D.P. (2006). Multiculturalism in environmental science: A snapshot of Singapore. Multicultural Perspectives, 8(2), 10—17.