So I tried something totally new to me this fall. I always start the year with a series of classes on the nature of science and the importance of the scientific community in generating scientific knowledge and understanding (it’s basically this but shorter). This year I decided to make a lesson explicitly addressing issues of equity and bias in the science community.

My hope was that I could lead the class to name the problem of racial and gender inequity and bias in science, and that I could let students know that this was a class where those topics aren’t off limits and where we are interested in ensuring equal access and stature in the community for everyone. My fears were that students wouldn’t understand why we were talking about this stuff in a science class, or that some of them would be used to detecting and dismissing any talk in a social justice vein and wouldn’t engage. (I care more about making the young women and minoritized kids in my class feel welcome than I do about shaking up a rich white kid’s day, but I also was fearing that if I alienate them then I won’t make any progress with them.)

The lesson plan was to introduce gender equity and bias in the scientific community as a relevant struggle facing the scientific community through a look at the infamous Google memo controversy of this summer. I didn’t want students to read the whole memo so I picked a couple editorials that addressed it. My idea was for half the class to read each one, summarize the arguments, and hopefully get some ideas out on the table. Articles here and here.

Here are the questions I had them answer and discuss after reading:

  1. Summarize the argument made in your assigned article.
  2. What feelings did you have while reading this article? Anger, sadness, pride, excitement, embarrassment? Pick one and try to explain specifically what part of the article made you feel this way.
  3. How does the author address the question of whether there is inequity or bias in STEM fields?
  4. What questions do you have about the factual statements made in your article and the evidence used to support it? Pick a specific factual statement made and say whether you believe it. If so, why? If not, what additional information would help you evaluate this claim?

What I was hoping was that the groups would see that the two articles were actually addressing completely different questions. The WIRED article sought to provide evidence that gender bias in science is a real, documented phenomenon. The National Review article sought to muddy the waters on whether Damore’s claims of innate biological gender differences had scientific merit. I was hoping that if they could identify this difference I could point out that it actually doesn’t matter what the scientific consensus ends up being on gender differences, because bias clearly does exist and it’s a thing we can actually take action on. Over the weekend they were assigned further reflection questions to think about what we can do in our own class to combat bias, and to take an IAT if they choose.

I had students answer the questions individually and then discuss them in small groups. Everybody was engaged during this part of the class but some of them were having reactions that I didn’t expect. First of all, a lot of students were pretty convinced by the National Review article. This feeling turned out to be validated by a lot of their written responses. They had a hard time teasing apart the different claims being made and understanding which ones were overreaching. I ended up regretting that I provided this “counterpoint” – turns out propaganda works. I was afraid this might happen, but I had to see it to understand why. More surprisingly to me, many students found the WIRED article to be “too opinionated” and so they didn’t trust the citations. I pointed out that there were 7 or 8 links to scientific journal publications, but I could tell some kids felt like I was forcing this opinion on them – mostly 11th grade boys, but a few girls could also be heard saying, as they were discussing this article, they don’t think that women have to work harder to achieve the same recognition as men. I was floored. I thought this article was perfect because it presents concrete evidence that bias exists AND it addresses the fact that it can be hard to accept this evidence for some people. But as a person who’s been on the internet more than zero times, I guess I should know by now that just reading articles doesn’t really convince anybody of anything.

In the class discussion portion, I ended up feeling both like I wished I had more time and that people didn’t talk enough. I didn’t come up with a way to incorporate whiteboards so there wasn’t student work to reference right there. I could have done something where people wrote stuff on poster paper or something. Missed opportunity. I lamely wrapped up by just making the point for them that there’s a lot of evidence that bias does exist and that we can do something about it, and referring them to the information on the IAT that I included at the end of the assignment.

I had the chance to talk with a couple students directly after one of the classes, and they had a couple interesting insights. First of all they were both sympathetic – they knew I wasn’t completely pleased with the way this went, but they gave me credit for trying something different. One student, a 12th grade boy, said he thought that there was way too much writing – we should have gotten straight to the discussion. Very fair point! Ultimately I think I misunderstood what kind of experience is going to do the heavy lifting in changing people’s opinions – and it’s not going to be through rationally considering the articles. It’s going to be through hearing how people feel. It’s not quite the same as a physics model where it’s really important that kids do logical analysis first, and then compare their findings in a group. It’s not as straightforward to shepherd the group to the “right” answer.

The other student stayed to talk to me for longer. She’s a 12th grader who happens to be the president of the Women’s Empowerment club (I did not know this before the lesson). She said she thought that the responses of the students ranged from really appreciative (mostly the senior girls) to indifferent at worse (mostly the junior boys). She said that she thinks that overall in the school culture there is an understanding that girls care more about social justice and the wider world, and boys tend to mock that sort of thing. I thought that was interesting and it wasn’t a trend I had picked up on – obviously I’ve met counterexamples to both sides but I wonder how many students would agree with her on that. It was really interesting for me to lift the lid on this aspect of the school’s cultural life and realize how I never even scratch the surface on most days – and how much my kids actually desperately need MORE experience talking about these things, more tools for coming together over these issues, not less.

Coming back on Monday, some kids (a little more than half, and seemingly mostly girls – drat) reported that they took an IAT, but I didn’t want to discuss it too much more at this point. Despite the fact that I clearly pushed it with Friday’s lesson, the students seemed to be able to give me the benefit of the doubt and dive into the customary Constant Velocity Buggy Lab with gusto. I have a fun computational modeling piece of this activity this year, so let’s see how much political capital I really have left here 😀

So: I can comfortably call the lesson itself a failure, I think. But of course I’m going to fail better next time, and here are some takeaways that I’m going to bring into play next time this comes up. (If you think of any more things I should have taken away I would love it if you would share in the comments.)

  1. I decided to focus on gender more than race because we have very few nonwhite students in our classes, and I wanted to shoot for maximum relevance to our classroom scientific community. But, this concession turned out not to make it that much easier to teach, and I think that students in our school really need to work on sensitivity to all of the groups that have historically been excluded from science. So I will choose materials next time that highlight both race and gender.
  2. I need to loosen up on the reins a little bit. The activity I designed did not really trust the students; it was really tightly controlled. I was worried that people wouldn’t draw the same conclusion I did from reading the two materials, and I let that influence my planning. After a little reflection I realized that this felt very familiar and it was like when I first started doing student-led discussions and I was afraid to let them drive. My goal has to be more modest: I may not convert any new feminists, but if I can show them that scientists can reasonably engage in this kind of discussion, and provide the first exposure to some of these ideas, and show that we can talk about these things without fighting, I will have done some work.
  3. I will be able to loosen up the reins, and students will be able to undertake this conversation more safely, if we wait until we know each other a little better. My classes end up building a really functional discussion community where people aren’t afraid to take risks and really do get to know each other a little bit. I could be using this to our advantage. I think in the future I would like to seed some ideas in the beginning of the year, then make time around the end of quarter 1 to discuss them in more detail. Danger: will I “run out of time” and avoid bringing it up at all?
  4. Of course right after I attempted this little experiment, I saw this in The Physics Teacher: http://aapt.scitation.org/doi/10.1119/1.4999724

They take a lot more time than I had planned, and they also do a great job of situating the discussion about equity in a larger discussion of “what is physics”. The IAT is a more central piece – they do a better job of convincing students that this discussion is necessary. Next time I go for this I’m going to take a page from their book.

Epilogue:

One reason that I believe in inquiry so strongly is that I have never been able to take advice – I always try things on my own, mess up, and then look back and think “oh… THAT’S what they were warning me about”. I decided to jump in with both feet and give this lesson a shot knowing that it could completely tank, because I think I owe it to my kids. I ask them to step out of their comfort zone and try new things every single day. If I can’t do the same for them, what kind of a teacher am I?

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