Caption: Jalisa Ferguson, Ph.D., and Izzy Berry ’22 in their James Center lab. Photos by Angelique Herring ’19 and Penh Alicandro ’22.
Why We Need The Underrepresentation Curriculum (URC)
It’s no secret that there’s a longstanding issue in academia, particularly in STEM fields: underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities persists. According to a recent report by the National Science Foundation, Black, Indigenous and Latinx students earned 14% of doctoral degrees, 24% of master’s degrees and 26% of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields in 2020 even though they make up 37% of the US population.1 How can educators acknowledge this lack of diversity in our fields and classes? Most have not had training to teach topics like imposter phenomenon, racial bias, or underrepresentation – so how do we lead these discussions with the students most likely to be affected by (or perhaps perpetuate) them? The URC is “a flexible curriculum designed to help students critically examine scientific fields and take action for equity, inclusion and justice” (URC). We found the URC to be a valuable resource in this effort and want to share our experience teaching such lessons in our chemistry, math, and physics courses in Fall 2021. We are not a part of the URC development team but after attending a virtual workshop, we were excited to use the materials in our classrooms.
Eckerd College is a private, undergraduate, liberal arts institution with a majority (80%) white student body and a predominately white faculty (85%). Our institution, like many others, is working to enhance diversity through our newly formed Office of Inclusive Excellence and by actively considering ways to best support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students in STEM. Our faculty work to infuse Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB)-related ideals into the curriculum, most notably in general education, by diversifying readings and facilitating discussions on the interconnectedness of race and questions of justice, truth, and global citizenship. However, if a core value of the liberal arts is the interconnectedness of human knowledge (American Academy of Colleges and Universities), these types of discussions cannot be limited to courses in the humanities and social sciences, but must be incorporated into STEM classes.2 The Underrepresentation Curriculum provides a meaningful plan to educate STEM students on the value of DEIB in science. We expect that incorporating relevant parts of this curriculum will help underrepresented students’ sense of belonging, regardless of the institution’s demographic make-up or the specific discipline in which it is taught.
URC Across STEM
The URC is designed and maintained by high school and college physics educators to provide tools for “STEM instructors to teach about injustice and change the culture of STEM” (URC). Science and Math educators may find it challenging to teach students about the need for DEIB in STEM, so the URC takes much of the “guesswork” out. The curriculum contains freely available lesson plans divided into three units: “Unit 1: Laying the Foundation”, “Unit 2: Gaining Relevant Knowledge”, and “Unit 3: Turning Knowledge into Action”. The lessons include pre-assignments, in-class activities, and homework thoughtfully constructed so that instructors can effortlessly “drop in” lessons of their interest where convenient in their course schedules. We found the lesson plans straightforward to use and were surprised by how easy it was to adapt the curriculum across our disciplines and in a variety of contexts, including introductory courses in Calculus and physics, mid-level courses like organic chemistry, and primarily lab-based courses like electronics.
We encourage others considering incorporating the URC to work with colleagues at your institution, within or across disciplines. Our successful implementation was in part due to our commitment to meet at least once before the semester began and once per month during the semester to discuss our implementation. Before classes began we identified courses and opportunities for including the materials. Content coverage is always an issue and it was helpful to talk about the value of including URC activities while wrestling with decisions about where to make space. We allocated the equivalent of 1-3 class periods to URC exercises. All of us used portions of URC’s Setting the Stage and Subjectivity (Unit 1) before choosing our own paths through the curriculum. Our mid-semester meetings allowed us to compare notes and discuss what worked to get students to engage more meaningfully with the material. Like us, we hope you’ll enjoy the added benefit of sharing our pedagogical approaches, mutual support, and accountability.
Our Teaching Experiences
Each of the following examples shed light on the conversations we had with our students. The URC’s repository of lesson plans makes implementing these topics seamless for those of us who have limited experience leading these types of discussions in our classes.
Mathematics and Culture
In Calculus I, Lindsey used Subjectivity (Unit 1) to have students write their own definitions of “math” and consider whether math is discovered or created. Since this is a very abstract idea that mathematicians themselves do not agree on, it was a safe discussion where students could have different opinions without feeling judged and it set the stage for more difficult topics. Students naturally started to consider the subjectivity involved in the study of mathematics, bringing up examples of bias in facial-recognition algorithms and misrepresentation of data, as well as the value of diverse perspectives.
After the lesson Why Does Representation Matter (Unit 1), Lindsey felt inspired to learn and share about Ethnomathematics, the study of the relationship between culture and mathematics. Her students considered the Ifa divination system of ancient West African peoples (and modern peoples of the African diaspora), which was one of the first binary counting systems. Students were surprised to learn that, because European colonizers discriminated against this system, it took Western mathematics an additional few hundred years to develop/discover the binary system on their own. The URC lessons not only helped students recognize the strength diversity brings to science, but that issues stemming from subjectivity are inherently a part of science. Students enjoyed learning about mathematics not typically seen in the classroom, a rare feat in a Calculus I course!
Chemistry: Historical Biographies in the Laboratory
Jalisa chose to have her organic chemistry laboratory students identify and learn about two Black scientists, one present-day and one pre-1950. It was important for students to learn about these chemists, their backgrounds, accomplishments, and what inspired them to pursue chemistry. It was also important for students to critique their own behaviors when conducting their searches. For instance, students were asked about the websites and search terms they used, and explicitly asked to compare results from searching the term “chemist” vs. “Black chemist”. To everyone’s initial discomfort, they were then asked to discuss the results of their search, including comparing the search terms used, in small groups before opening up to a whole class conversation. Allowing students the space to investigate independently gave them the opportunity to gather clarity in their ideas, and maybe some courage, before sharing with each other.
The more illuminating week for the budding organic chemists involved learning about stereotype threat. Many students had not heard of the phenomenon before, let alone thought about how it might impact their personal and professional lives or their own sense of identity. Defined by Claude Steele, stereotype threat is “the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype.”3 Following the URC Stereotype Threat (Unit 2) lesson plan, students again thought and wrote independently before engaging in prompted discussion. They learned how to identify the stereotypes that affect different groups of people in specific situations where stereotype threat might affect someone’s confidence – and how to combat it for themselves. After some reflection and discussion, students brainstormed strategies, such as reminding themselves that their exams are not designed to benefit one group over another, for instance men over women, essentially eliminating the stereotype that men are better test-takers than women. They also learned that simply being aware of stereotype threat can minimize its damaging effects.4
Physics: Why Does Representation Matter?
As in Jalisa’s class, Anne’s students were surprised to read studies showing that students performed worse when they were told they were being compared to a group that stereotypically was known for that task, be it mathematics or athletics. The discussion then shifted to studies emerging from physics education research that examine the use of values affirmations to help ameliorate stereotype threat5 with discussions of techniques students might use to help them as they faced upcoming tests.
Because this was a physics class, Anne used Why Does Representation Matter (Unit 1) and its focus on the 2016 supreme court decision about affirmative action and college admissions. Students discussed the homework which asked them to focus on the responses to Justice Robert’s question: “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” The lesson gave students a framework that they used for the rest of the discussions– evaluating to what extent arguments were about the consequences for physics as a whole or about addressing injustice and how these arguments might be employed in different contexts.
Assessing the URC in Our Classes
We conducted a study which included pre- and post-surveys for students, supplied by the URC, to be completed before and after the series of lesson plans from the URC were taught and discussed in our classes. The surveys used a Likert-type scale for students to agree or disagree with statements such as “I see myself as a physics person,” “Diversity among chemists is important for the sake of science,” and “I have a responsibility to take action to promote diversity in mathematics.”
Qualitatively, we found that students valued the opportunity to learn more about diversity in STEM. By the end of the semester, they were more likely to disagree with the statement “Talking about racial issues causes unnecessary tension” and agree with ones like “Racism is a major problem in the U.S.” Most importantly, they were willing to explore their own responsibility to promote diversity broadly. They were also more likely to agree or strongly agree with the statements “I feel comfortable in this class” and “I feel like I can be myself in this class.” In response to the open-ended question: What would you say to someone who said “you shouldn’t be talking about race in a physics course”? Students said:
“If I don’t talk about it then it is very unlikely anyone will and it is a topic that must be brought up as there is clearly a lack of diversity in physics.”
“Race is a topic that needs to be addressed in a physics classroom. The individuals that make up physicists need to be representative of the population. While we are all physics students, we are still people and the environment we are in correlates to how well we are able to succeed. In a physics classroom diversity must be there and talked about.”
Our small pilot of this URC at a predominantly white undergraduate institution serves as an example that this work encourages both students and educators to meaningfully consider their role in and the value of DEIB efforts, particularly those in the natural sciences.
It is both possible and rewarding for STEM instructors to incorporate strategies developed by the URC quite easily in their classes. Interested faculty and administrators can consult with the creators of the curriculum who are willing to host workshops and lead demonstrations. We imagine that a group of faculty at your institution could even create a Faculty Online Learning Community (FOLC) to receive and give the type of support that we were able to cultivate at Eckerd as you navigate the uncertain waters of underrepresentation instruction.6
How Can You Get Started Using the URC?
The Underrepresentation Curriculum Project has a wealth of planning and implementation resources including example timelines and lesson plans with in-depth discussion prompts and activities at their website: https://underrep.com/. They also maintain a Slack channel where educators can share best practices and build community.
We would like to thank the American Association of Physics Teachers for hosting the initial Underrepresentation Curriculum workshop that sparked this project on our campus. This work was supported by a planning grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.