How Can We Make STEM An Inclusive Space for All?

Professional photo of Sibrina Collins
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Sibrina Collins, Ph.D.
Executive Director of STEM Education
College of Arts and Sciences, Lawrence Technological University

Caption: Dr. Bettye Washington Greene is the 5th African American woman awarded a doctoral degree in chemistry. (Image Credit: Science History Institute)

In fall 2022, I had the honor of speaking during the Inaugural Bettye Washington Greene Endowed Lecture Series1 at my alma mater, Wayne State University in Detroit. Greene, who earned her PhD in chemistry from Wayne State in 1965, is the 5th African American woman awarded a doctoral degree in chemistry and the first to be hired in the chemical industry. Greene joins four other African American women awarded doctorates in chemistry from 1947 to 1965.a The other four women are Dr. Marie Maynard Daly, Dr. Gladys Williams Royal, Dr. Katheryn Emanuel Lawson, and Dr. Reatha Clark King.a Thus, beginning with Dr. Daly, African American women have earned doctorates in chemistry for only 75 years, which is not that long.b

Upon graduating from Wayne State, Greene was hired as a research chemist by the Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan, where she focused on polymer and latex chemistry. Dr. Greene published her research in high-impact journals and received several registered patents for her pioneering work. However, what I find most fascinating about Dr. Greene’s story is her family legacy in STEM. Her daughter, Dr. Willetta Greene-Johnson, earned a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago in 1988 and is a Grammy-winning songwriter! Honestly, I don’t know how common it is for both a mother and a daughter to earn a doctoral degree in a STEM discipline, and more specifically for women of color. However, we do know from decades of research about the significant barriers that women of color face in pursuing careers in STEM (see the AAAS Conference Report, The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science (1976).2 Dr. Daly and Dr. Lawson both are listed as attendees in the AAAS Conference Report.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Greene’s daughter for a book chapter and finally met her in-person during an Endowed Lecture Series honoring her mother.c In the chapter, she briefly describes challenges her mother faced in industry, particularly training other scientists with fewer credentials, who were being promoted. “She went up the ranks, but she was frustrated towards the end of her career,” says Greene-Johnson. Thus, although Dr. Greene was a trailblazing chemist, she experienced challenges within the STEM community.

Why is it so Hard for Women and People of Color to Develop a STEM Identity and Sense of Belonging?

STEM identity broadly defined by Morton and Parsons3 is:

…contingent upon the recognition of self as being a competent participant in STEM but also recognition by others.

A cartoon drawing of a book with a wave of lines below it

Another example is Dr. Jedidah Isler, the first African American woman to earn a PhD in astrophysics from Yale University. She described the idea of intersectionality as a liminal space, specifically “the spaces in-between,” during her 2015 TED Talk. “I’ve lived the entirety of my life in the in-between, in the liminal space between dreams and reality, race and gender, poverty and plenty, science and society,” says Isler.

Historically, women and people of color have not been welcome in STEM communities, and if you are not welcome it is extremely difficult to develop a STEM identity or sense of belonging. The significant scientific achievements of Dr. Greene and her daughter in chemistry and physics certainly embody the key concepts of STEM identity and belonging. Dr. Greene encouraged her daughter to pursue science as a career and was a role model for her. Furthermore, because she grew up in a science household, she was not afraid of math. Thus, the encouragement from her mother certainly impacted her STEM identity and sense of belonging.

As an inorganic chemist and associate professor with twelve years of experience teaching chemistry, I’ve taken the opportunity to implement numerous evidence-based best practices that support the development of STEM identity and belonging for students in the classroom. These are some of the practices I’ve found most impactful.

Collaborate with Social Scientists and Researchers

My colleagues, Dr. Tiffany Steele, University of Rochester; Dr. Michelle Nelson, Lawrence Technological University; and I recently received federal funding to explore the impact of storytelling in STEM classrooms.d Our central research question is: how does storytelling, as a pedagogical tool, influence STEM identity, persistence, and commitment to the STEM disciplines? Then I taught a social science seminar with the theme, Equity and History of Science. The course included watching the documentary celebrating the achievements of Dr. Greene. Although we are still evaluating the impact of storytelling in this course, our preliminary data suggests that storytelling had a positive impact on all students in the class.

More importantly, our project is an example of how STEM and educational research faculty can collaborate and promote research focused on creating inclusive STEM ecosystems.

As a chemist, I was trained to approach the classroom and the discipline differently than social scientists and educational researchers. Collaborating with these scientists and researchers provided me a unique opportunity to grow and understand different perspectives regarding my approach to addressing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and STEM education. STEM and humanities fields are complementary, and specifically the humanities disciplines help you to understand the importance of developing empathy for other people. For me, this translated in the classroom by making sure all student voices and opinions were valued and respected.

Establishing research collaborations across disciplines can be a challenge for tenure-track faculty, who must focus on securing research grants and publishing research in high-impact journals for tenure and promotion. It is critical for departmental leadership to understand the value of these multidisciplinary research collaborations and how these efforts can address DEI and improve STEM curricula for all students within departments.

Focusing on STEM Curricula Shapes Belonging

How can we make STEM an inclusive space for all? A good first step should focus on improving STEM curricula for classroom engagement with students. Yes, improving STEM curricula takes time, but educators need to continue to develop effective strategies to engage students and improve learning. For example, several years ago I was inspired to use the iPod to teach electrochemistry concepts in a second semester general chemistry course. I walked into class one day and said to my students, “The title of this lecture is ‘Who’s in your iPod?’ Now, tell me who is in your playlist.” To my surprise the students were so engaged and I had so much fun teaching! The students were excited because the content was very relatable to them and they wanted to learn about how the iPod actually worked. I eventually published the activity in 2010 in the Journal of Chemical Education.4 This experience made me realize that I needed to teach in a different way to engage students in the classroom.

My current approach in STEM education focuses on storytelling, which includes utilizing Marvel Studios’ Black Panther for engagement. In all of my years of teaching, this was the first time students were excited to learn about the periodic table of elements. In celebration of the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, I was recently interviewed in Science News Explores, which is a magazine that engages young people in science. The fictional vibranium is a fun protagonist for engagement.

Scientific Organizations and Societies Can Nurture Identity and Belonging

I believe that scientific organizations and societies play a significant role in increasing retention and reducing barriers to success in STEM. The American Chemical Society (ACS) honored both Dr. Greene and Dr. Daly with two symposiums held during the spring 2022 and fall 2022 ACS national conferences. It was a privilege to speak during the symposium to honor Dr. Daly. Her legacy is also being celebrated in an ACS virtual issue in collaboration with the journals Analytical Chemistry and Biochemistry. Recognizing these women on a national platform is important because representation in STEM absolutely matters. I recently presented a talk at the 2022 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education in the Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Chemistry Curriculum and Pedagogies Symposium, to discuss our preliminary results on storytelling in the classroom. The symposium featured many presentations about representation in STEM, including a recent study focused on chemistry and Indigenous communities in northern Alaska.5

I am proud to share that a nomination to honor Dr. Greene with a National Historic Chemical Landmark (NHCL) was approved by the ACS Board Committee on Public Affairs and Public Relations in December 2022. Essentially, ACS “grants Landmark status to seminal achievements in the history of the chemical sciences.” A Landmark to honor Dr. Daly was also recently approved.

As an undergraduate chemistry major at Wayne State University in the early 1990s, I became a member of a student affiliate chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). Joining the organization was so important to establish my Chemistry Identity and sense of belonging in STEM. Organizations like NOBCChE are important for establishing a STEM identity because you develop a sense of belonging through networking within an inclusive and diverse STEM community. Thus, I have several decades of personal and professional mentoring relationships because of my involvement with NOBCChE. NOBCChE was established in 1972 and celebrated their 50-year anniversary last year.6

Furthermore, AAAS’s IUSE Disruptor Blog provides an important national platform to address DEI in STEM education. Recent Disruptor blog posts provide key strategies to create faculty online learning communities (FOLCs) and to establish infrastructures to support community-engaged partnerships to address topics such as STEM identity, intersectionality, and belonging. Throughout my entire career, I have lived at the intersections of race and gender, science, and society. We can certainly learn from each other from living in these liminal spaces. What will you do to make STEM inclusive for all?



a The other four African American women awarded doctorates in chemistry before Greene are Dr. Marie Maynard Daly, 1947, Columbia University; Dr. Gladys Williams Royal, 1954, The Ohio State University; Dr. Katheryn Emanuel Lawson, 1957, University of New Mexico; and Dr. Reatha Clark King, 1963, University of Chicago.

b The first American woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry is Dr. Rachel Lloyd, who earned her PhD in 1887 from the University of Zurich. This is six decades before Dr. Daly earned her degree from Columbia.

cThe book chapter about Dr. Greene was the basis of a new 8-minute documentary. The film was written, directed and produced by Logan Daniher, a media communications major from Lawrence Technological University in Michigan. It includes reflections from her daughter growing up in a science household. Her father William M. Greene was an engineer. The documentary was funded by LTU’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Inclusive Excellence grant (#52008705).

dOur project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF Award HRD-1826719) from the Louis Stokes Midwest Regional Center of Excellence (LSMRCE) for Broadening Participation in STEM. (PI: Dr. Christopher Botanga, Chicago State University).