Racism in STEM is systemically embedded into our educational system and can be camouflaged with other issues--here's how to correct it.

Racism is a subtle, silent enemy of STEM classrooms


Racism is systemically embedded into our educational system and can be camouflaged with other issues

When you think of racism in our classrooms and schools, what immediately comes to your mind? Signs that say “Whites Only” or Confederate flags hoisted on flag poles?

Although these are pieces of evidence that racism does exist, racism isn’t as blatant as a physical sign that favors one race over another. In fact, racism is systemically embedded into our educational institution and can be camouflaged with other issues like socioeconomic status and even the learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Take, for example, the recent California Science Test (CAST) scores released in October 2022 that showed 29.45 percent of students met or exceeded the Science standards. When race is considered as a factor in how students scored, the CAST scores show that only 13.75 percent of Black or African American students met or exceeded the Science standards. With Black students not even scoring half of the overall percentage, we’ve just gotten a sign to ring the alarm on equity in science education. We are clearly not serving our Black students. 

This thread of inequity continues through other groups of students such as English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities. The data shows over and over that we are missing the mark completely in our effort to build equitable, anti-racist classrooms.

As you consider your own role as a teacher in building a classroom that inspires belonging for every student, assess yourself on the following factors that can contribute to inequity and turn your classroom from a healthy one into a toxic one.  

Implicit Bias

Implicit bias is the bias that is carried either unconsciously or unintentionally and can affect our judgments, decisions, and behaviors. The truth is, we all carry some sort of bias. This can be seen in the enrollment of students of color in honors and advanced classes based solely on teacher recommendation. It can also play a role in how we discipline students and who we suspend. For example, known as the Black Escalation, teachers have been shown to severely discipline Black students versus white students. Implicit bias can also be seen in the overrepresentation of students of color in special education vs. underrepresented students in gifted and talented education.

As educators, it is vital that we recognize the biases we carry so that this does not have an adverse impact on the students that we are serving. We highly recommend that you take the race implicit bias test. We must recognize our own biases, dismantle what damages student equity, and rebuild a system that is truly socially just. 

Microaggressions 

Microaggressions are subtle and unintentional comments, actions, and environmental factors that can affect students’ feeling of belonging. We as educators can also serve as gatekeepers to either advanced studies, special education, counseling, etc. If we are going to be gatekeepers, we have to be aware of the microaggressions we perpetuate. Examples of microaggression can be scheduling major deadlines on important cultural event dates or making inappropriate and insensitive jokes about a particular group of students.

Counseling Services

Mental health professionals and counselors are vital in supporting students in their academic journey and the “whole child” development. However, are counselors allowing every student to pursue their dreams, regardless of their situation? Many students of color have been dissuaded from STEM and attending higher-level courses due to their past academic performance or solely based on their backgrounds.

Lack of Access to Physics and Chemistry

Teachers have stated that we need “Rocks for Jocks” and want to lower the science requirements for high school graduation. This allows for students to take “easier” pathways that lack rigor. However, many students of color are funneled into these pathways which do not count as a university requirement, putting them at an immediate disadvantage. Instead of creating classroom supports and scaffolds for students, we are watering down the curriculum and channeling certain students into them based on implicit factors.

Representation

Representation means more than just showing students STEM professionals of color; we have to incorporate people of color beyond tokenization and truly create a diverse community that includes these voices. For example: which voices are represented during decision-making processes and in our instructional materials? How are we actively recruiting diverse teachers and leaders? To go beyond tokenization, we need to employ proven strategies to increase representation in education. 

How do you create an anti-racist classroom that is truly a classroom for every student? This is the question we are always asking ourselves and working toward in our professional development for educators and educational leaders. 

We recently read the following comments in a discussion section of an educational article highlighting the need for anti-racist training for teachers: “I teach in a predominantly white neighborhood so I don’t really need diverse science texts” and “I am not racist so I don’t need anti-racist training.” The truth is, anti-racism is for everyone. Every student should be able to see diversity in the STEM fields. This normalizes the concept of diverse voices. It also allows for students and teachers to reflect on their own biases, think about microaggressions and how truly to build a classroom community that stands up to racism. 

At STEM4Real, we carry out activities that mirror the lived experiences of our students. For example, we deep dive into things we have heard about various groups of students and examine the stereotypes perpetuated in our classrooms. If the activity was awful, imagine how the actual experience of racism is. The thing is, for us to move forward, we must truly believe in creating spaces to have #4Real conversations about race, bias, microaggressions, systemic oppression, and social injustice so we can rebuild our classrooms as healthy environments where everyone thrives.

Related:
Computer science classes have an equity issue–some NYC educators are trying to change that
How robotic gamification helped my elementary students love STEM

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