Making Excellence Inclusive in STEM Classes – Barrier #1: Stereotypes

This fall and spring, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms. The series is comprised of three workshops(1), the third of which was held on November 7th:

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Many thanks again to Andres Tellez for the beautiful mandala image used in the flyer for our event.

In this research-based workshop, we discussed the characteristics and benefits of an inclusive classroom, identified common barriers to inclusivity in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) classes, and discussed some new strategies for tackling these barriers constructively in STEM classes.

This blog post is the first in a series of follow-ups to the workshop intended to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the session, and also make resources available for further reading on the topic. When possible, in the discussion of specific scholarly works I have linked to both public summaries and journal articles so that those with and without fulltext journal access can read about this research.

But first, here’s the workshop prezi:

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Note: at the time of this first post, the references sections in the prezi for Barriers #2 and #3 are still being compiled, and will be completed when I post the blog entries for these barriers (forthcoming). This embedded prezi will automatically update. 

As you can see in the prezi, the bulk of the workshop was organized around three barriers to making excellence inclusive in STEM classrooms. The first barrier we identified was Stereotypes.

Wherefore art thou stereotype?
At its most basic level, of course, a stereotype is merely an oversimplified conception of a group of people. Stereotypes develop out of longstanding cultural assumptions and tend to self-replicate and become rooted in popular belief. In the workshop, we brainstormed a number of stereotypes specific to STEM including which types of people “naturally” possess STEM-specific abilities and skills, which types do not, and who STEM practitioners are and are not. The stereotypes we came up with involved categories of gender, race, learning style and ability. Images like the “mad scientist” were invoked – male, white, out of touch with the world, cares only about work, has no social skills, and can’t get a date to save his life:

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Image credit: tvtropes.com

While at times humorous, this activity highlighted the proliferation of problematic images involving STEM – stereotypes that involve both the perception of STEM fields by those outside the disciplines, as well perceptions of who “belongs” in a STEM field. Research shows that these perceptions form early – for instance this 2011 study (journal article here) found that children started linking math with gender as early as the second grade:

The kids, 247 children (126 girls and 121 boys) in grades one through five in Seattle-area schools, sat in front of a large-screen laptop computer and used an adapted keyboard to sort words into categories.

As early as second grade, the children demonstrated the American cultural stereotype for math: boys associated math with their own gender while girls associated math with boys. In the self-concept test, boys identified themselves with math more than girls did.

In our workshop, one participant asked “How are children picking up these stereotypes so early?” Many scholars who study the social construction of gender and race argue that these cues are embedded in the fabric of our lives from a very young age (for a well-researched and accessible introduction to some of this work, check out the excellent Sociological Images blog. Specifically, here’s a primer on the Sociology of Gender). For instance, children’s toys often incorporate subtle (or not so subtle) visual cues about what jobs are performed by men and which are performed by women:

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Image credit: Caroline P. via Lisa Wade, Sociological Images

Or which intellectual skills girls are okay to possess or not possess:

and stir” approach to diversifying course materials is not a magic elixir for addressing the impacts of stereotypes in STEM classes. As some have no-doubt experienced, a ham-handed application of this tip can be ineffective, or worse, lead to awkward and counter-productive “diversity moments” that succeed only in singling out diverse learners and distracting the class from course material. Thus, this tip works best as a thoughtful complement to tips 1 and 2, and in cooperation with the goals and objectives of your lessons and course more broadly.


Beyond the Barriers

As always, incremental steps are steps in the right direction. If you are unsure how best to approach making these kinds of changes, you can always contact us at the Schreyer Institute for an individual consultation, a classroom observation, or a custom workshop. Our services for Penn State teachers are always free and confidential.

This article was written by Destiny D. Aman, a Ph.D. candidate in geography, and a graduate student affiliate of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State University. Originally posted 1 December 2011. How to cite a blog post.

(1) Notes from Workshop 1 and Workshop 2 are available elsewhere on the SITE blog.

(2) Indeed a recent survey by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), found “sense of fit” to be the single most important climate factor predicting job satisfaction in STEM faculty positions, with women significantly less likely to report satisfaction in this category.

Image credits for photos on the right:
Scantron (stock.xchng)
Physics classroom (Science Daily)
Homer brain (simpsontrivia.com.ar)
Too pretty t-shirt (spreadshirt.com)
Engineer (findbb.com)

Scientist (NewsOne.com)

1 thought on “Making Excellence Inclusive in STEM Classes – Barrier #1: Stereotypes

  1. Angela R. Linse Post author

    This is incredible. I just posted a link to it on the listserv of the professional society of faculty developers (POD Network). I am ready to run out and read the recent citations so that I can update my own knowledge on this topic.

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