Teaching Outside the Textbook: Integrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into the Science Classroom Using Real-World Experiences

Professional photo of Dr. Ortiz
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Diana I. Ortiz, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Biology Department
Westminster College
Dr. Stephanie August
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Stephanie E. August, Ph.D.
Independent Consultant
Engineering Education

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  – James Baldwin

Is the integration of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the science classroom enriching student experiences and creating long-lasting transformative effects? In what specific ways can these experiences change student perceptions on social justice in science and health as a human right? As science educators, what strategies can be useful in helping us become more inclusive in the classroom?

As educators, we often perceive science as multidimensional, multidisciplinary, and complex. However, we frequently fail to show students that the benefits of scientific knowledge do not reach all members in our society in an equitable manner. I was introduced to the intersection of epidemiology and social justice as a 21-year-old undergraduate biology student attending a public health summer fellowship program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. This program aimed to train and encourage underrepresented minority students to pursue careers in public health amidst the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which disproportionally affect socially marginalized populations. This experience profoundly changed my perspective as a young student and inspired my future career path. Thirty years later, I am now in a position to teach epidemiology during another major public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, which also represents an extraordinary opportunity to educate my students about the same systemic health disparities that persist in our society.

Today I am a biology faculty member at Westminster College, a small liberal arts institution nestled in northwestern Pennsylvania, teaching undergraduate biology courses, including epidemiology and global health. Most of my students are biology, molecular biology, and environmental science majors who typically pursue careers in medicine, veterinary medicine, allied health, and public health. In my epidemiology course students learn fundamental principles, like measures of disease frequency and association, study designs, statistical methods, and sources of bias.1 The course also highlights public health disparities by raising students’ awareness on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in epidemiology and public health through real-world examples. Our college’s demographic is predominately White, which makes these topics even more essential, since most of my students go on to pursue healthcare-related careers in more diverse communities than their own.

Dr. Ortiz stands at the front of a classroom holding a discussion with four masked students sitting around a lab table.

Dr. Ortiz weaves conversations about racial and socioeconomic disparities into her epidemiology courses to broaden students’ perspectives. (Image credit: Diana Ortiz)

Today, we navigate a complicated and sometimes confusing era of social change, political strife, and fast-moving information. During the fall of 2020, I taught epidemiology during the COVID-19 global pandemic which heightened public discussions about racial and socioeconomic disparities in healthcare. Although instruction was challenged by social distancing, mask-wearing, and a hybrid learning environment, my students embraced the course with great curiosity and a willingness to listen and engage in their own learning process. The course was particularly intriguing for students who were seeking a better understanding of the scientific and social complexities involved in a major public health crisis. Some aspects of this course experience ended up inspiring my students to see health disparities through a different lens, especially during a time of intense social and economic challenges.

The lack of inclusion in our science courses will continue to reflect the persistent and systemic disparities in society and education unless we intentionally create specific structures that acknowledge, challenge, and change them. When we encourage and promote diversity in science, we also help our instruction and laboratory experiences to become more accessible, equitable, and inclusive.

Below are seven successful strategies I integrated into my science courses that have fostered productive and meaningful conversations about DEI and positively impacted my students beyond the classroom. It is my hope that these strategies inspire other science educators to weave DEI more deliberately into their courses.

Become More Inclusive in Your Teaching

The integration of DEI-related topics into the science classroom can be difficult or uncomfortable to some educators.2 However, rapidly changing student demographics in higher education is driving an increasing number of educators to adopt culturally responsive pedagogical practices in order to meet student needs. Difficult does not mean impossible. These conversations, after all, may not be difficult but unpracticed.2 An easy way to integrate DEI into the discussion of scientific concepts is to include scientists in the field who are not just “old White men.” Many online resources depict historical and contemporary people of color, women, LBGTQ+, people with disabilities who have contributed to diverse scientific disciplines. Most likely your students have never heard of them. Weave discussions about these figures into your lectures or ascribe writing or presentation assignments. This simple strategy helps to normalize diversity and enhance the visibility of marginalized people in science.

Representation matters to our students and recognizing it could help drive their decisions to pursue careers in science; it should matter to us.

Invite Speakers and Introduce the Power of Diverse Perspectives and Real-Life Experiences

Introducing diverse perspectives in science courses help students progress from simply acquiring knowledge to questioning their own or other assumptions and arguments. This frees students from the limitations of their prior beliefs and experiences, solves problems while considering constraints and biases, and teaches important ways of thinking that can prepare them to generate and answer new questions.3-6

One of the highlights and most talked about experiences of my epidemiology course is hearing from guest public health professionals and their real-world experiences. I deliberately select guest speakers with diverse backgrounds who work on research topics that integrate DEI-related issues. They offer unique and diverse perspectives, challenge stereotypes, provide context for the real-world, and enhance awareness on the importance of DEI in science. They often represent counterviewpoints which teach students to deal with counter attitudes and perspectives faced in their own professional lives. They also inspire students by discussing their journey through science and barriers they encountered or continue to experience. Furthermore, guest lecturers generate introspection as it recognizes that instructors have knowledge limitations and that, as a community of learners, we are all responsible for constantly identifying and examining our own biases and prejudgments. Guest lecturers can be identified and recruited by contacting scientific societies or non-profit organizations (i.e., Skype a Scientist), by asking your own colleagues, and via scientific articles which often offer the author’s contact information. Topics presented by my guest lecturers over the years involved a rich array of subjects, including:

  • Health outcomes related to historical trauma in American Indian communities,
  • Invisibility of people of Middle Eastern or North African descent in the US Census,
  • Challenges of establishing effective diagnostic laboratories and personnel training in developing countries, and the
  • Impact of persistent health disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic in American Indian communities.

Learning About the Data Beyond the Numbers – Enhance Perspectives Through Real-Life Data

In science courses, educators can develop creative and engaging lab activities that are more inclusive by demonstrating the intersections between science and social justice. For example, a laboratory project in my epidemiology course provides students with a great opportunity to explore the historical relevance of DEI in public health. Students conduct comprehensive research focusing on the collection and analysis of online historical death certificate data centered around public health disparities.7 The project allows students to explore real-life mortality data, use critical thinking tools to evaluate it, acquire project management skills, and gain a new perspective on the influence of social determinants and demographics on mortality. Students integrate the historical root causes of health disparities, how they influence mortality patterns in their chosen populations, and train them to recognize intrinsic bias in data collection and analysis. Over the years, students have selected a wide array of research topics, including:

  • Investigating risk factors related to the mortality of Japanese Americans in World War II internment camps compared to the general population,
  • Comparing mortality and risk factors observed during the Great Depression with a focus on health disparities and poverty in American Indian populations,
  • Ethnic disparities in cause-specific neonatal mortality associated with the advancement of neonatal healthcare,
  • Factors associated with infant and child mortality and their link to health inequalities during the 1960s, and
  • Race as a potential risk factor associated with mortality during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Reveal that Science is Not Always Objective and Unbiased

Although, current national science education initiatives strongly encourage integrating DEI-related issues into biology education, recent surveys have found that most White undergraduate science students cannot explain why it is important to consider diversity of thought, inclusion, and experience in science.8 Moreover, students sometimes erroneously emphasize that science is objective and thus unbiased. Nothing could be further from the truth. My advice to science educators: examine and accept your own biases.

As scientists we bring diverse experiences, training, and assumptions that result in distinct approaches when asking questions and drawing conclusions. Our students will recognize the same values in their own future professional endeavors.

You Have More to Offer Than What You Realize

Our life experiences and knowledge truly guide our expressions, actions, and decisions. Thus, regardless of our cultural background, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability, we all have the capacity to integrate DEI topics into the science classroom. The challenges brought by the recent COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest events should compel us to reconsider and shape how we teach science and how we might be impacting undergraduate science education and our mentoring.

Show Students That Science is Vulnerable to Social Injustice and That Truth Can Be a Powerful Motivator

Teaching science in an era of deep social change has taught me that our role as educators should go beyond preparing students for their next academic or professional endeavor while maintaining their enthusiasm about the content and skills. Go beyond the norm by showing students that science inquiry is not performed in isolation, but that it is often intersectional and vastly dynamic.

Encourage, Stimulate Creative Empathy

Many students who have not experienced diversity may be unable to envision the struggles and desires of marginalized people or of people whose lives were vastly different from theirs.9 Help students understand their own privilege through other people’s experiences. Providing opportunities for students to explore their own beliefs and positions in society will prepare them to recognize and challenge systemic barriers in their own communities.

The examples presented here demonstrate that there is a vast and creative array of strategies that could be used effectively in the science classroom to promote inclusiveness. It is up to us, as educators, to willfully engage in our own students’ experiences, provide diverse perspectives, and reflect on the evolution of our own teaching and mentoring.

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