'Swimming Against the Tide'

Many educators worry that the ability of the United States to produce enough scientists will fall short unless a more diverse group of students are recruited to science study -- and thrive. Despite the odds, some black females do succeed in science. Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education (Temple University Press) looks at why some students succeed, and the roadblocks they face along the way. The book is based on a combination of statistics, surveys and interviews.

February 2, 2009

Many educators worry that the ability of the United States to produce enough scientists will fall short unless a more diverse group of students are recruited to science study -- and thrive. Despite the odds, some black females do succeed in science. Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education (Temple University Press) looks at why some students succeed, and the roadblocks they face along the way. The book is based on a combination of statistics, surveys and interviews. Sandra L. Hanson, the author and professor of sociology at Catholic University, responded via e-mail to questions about the book.

Q: Many educators say they worry about lack of diversity in the STEM student body, but that there is a lack of interest or preparation among members of certain groups. Your work suggests otherwise -- why do so many people assume that the problem is a lack of available talent?

A: Part of the problem is the response that young people have when they see that the science education system does not view them as a source of science talent. One of the young African American women in my survey put it this way, “They looked at us like we weren’t supposed to be scientists.” These low expectations for them in science are very clear to young minority students. My research shows that African American students (especially female) have a great love of science and hope to have science jobs. But when they enter the white male science system, they have to literally “swim against the tide.” It is important to note that minority students are very aware of the low expectations and race discrimination that they encounter in science.

Research showing the impact of race-biased education systems reveals negative consequences for self-confidence, attitudes, and achievement. Thus, the stereotypes really do act as a threat to these young people and the self-fulfilling prophecy creates young minority students who do not do well in science, as expected. The process starts with the science education structure but has an impact on minority student interest and achievement. Some look at the end-product of interest and achievement without considering how this came about. The fact that many young minority students, most notably the young African American women that I focus on in this research, continue to love science and want to have science occupations IN SPITE OF THESE NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES, is a remarkable testament to their strength and agency. One wonders what the expectations and achievements of these young women would be if they actually experienced a positive and supportive science education experience.

Additionally, it is important to note that school resources affect all students. If minority students are more likely to end up in low-resource schools, then they will have lower achievement. Some of the African American women in my study talked about their lack of preparation in math and science in addition to limited resources in their science classrooms. One young African American woman in my survey noted, “Science is in our heart as black people. We just need to be given the help in school. The right tools like everyone else.” Another young African American woman in the survey noted that the problem is that schools that are predominantly African American are “not as equipped as those in other areas.” Thus, this issue of poor preparation and resources in predominantly minority, inner-city schools has nothing to do with the interest and talent of the young people. The end-result however is a group of minority youth that is less prepared and interested in science because of economic inequality, residential segregation, and often inadequate urban school (and science education) systems. Again, the fact that so many young African American women remain interested in science is surprising and unexpected to many who are aware of the discrimination that these young women face in multiple areas (race, gender, and social class). My research suggests that many of these young women persevere because of the strength and unique history of the African American family and community. Thus, I suggest that we expect the unexpected when we look at the talent base here.

Finally, many people assume a double disadvantage associated with race and gender for young African American women as they enter the white, male science education system. Much of the research on this topic has looked at race effects and gender effects and assumed a cumulative disadvantage. It is important that researchers not make any assumptions about the effect of being female or black without considering how these statuses might converge. In other words, we need to avoid talking about “women” in science but rather look at the experiences of different groups of women. Because of the unique gender system in the African American community, these young women actually have some advantages in the science system.

Q: When do African American girls interested in science start to get discouraged? Who does the discouraging?

A: African American girls start to get discouraged in science the minute they enter the science classroom (as early as elementary school). Many of these young women report that they feel unwelcome in the science classroom. My research shows a decline in interest in science among African American women between the 8th grade and the senior year of high school. Additionally, it suggests a reversal of race trends with young African American women being more likely than young white women to look forward to science class in the eighth grade, but less likely to express this interest by the time they enter their senior year of high school.

It is extremely important that science teachers in middle and junior high schools present science curricula that stimulate the interest of all students in science. Many African American students who were high achievers in elementary school science classes begin to show signs of low self concept in science by the time they reach middle school.

Structural barriers make it difficult for African American women at every transition in the science pipeline. As minority women enter high school, they encounter fewer minority teachers in their math and science classes. The transition to college often finds them under-prepared in math and science skills. Additionally, unless they attend an HBCU or certain community college or city universities, they will most likely find themselves in classrooms and schools that are majority white. Having a critical mass of minority students in science classes and labs is an important element in retention. Research by the National Science Foundation suggests that African American women remain under-represented and have relatively higher attrition rates in undergraduate and graduate science programs and, eventually, in science occupations.

Who does the discouraging? Throughout my answers to these questions I note that schools (curricula, textbooks, administrators, faculty, and staff) are often structured to the advantage of white youth and the disadvantage of African American (and minority) youth. I do not mean to suggest that all schools and all teachers are racist. However, schools are critical for the success of minority youth and when they are perceived as being biased, considerable damage is done to young science talent that does not fit the stereotype of a white, male scientist. One of the most important factors in discouraging young minority youth in science is teachers and teaching styles. Some have noted that there are many science teachers who have never even seen African American scientists and engineers (in spite of their abundance).

My research also suggests that peers play a role in discouraging (and encouraging) young African American women in science. Many of the young African American women in my study had peer support in science from their African American counterparts. However, many of the young women report that their white peers get preferential treatment in the science classroom. Part of the sense of not belonging in science also comes from white peers themselves. One young woman in my survey states, “Well if you can’t relate to anyone, and you don’t want everyone to cater to you, science class usually goes into groups and your white counterparts feel like you’re looking for a ride.. do all the work, in short your ideas aren’t considered.”

Q: Your book stressed the intersection of issues of race and gender. But how are the experiences of African American girls different from those experienced by African American boys, or different from female students of a range of ethnicities?

A: Research for the Swimming book was funded by NSF. It represents my first look at the intersection of gender and race in science education with a focus on African American women. My current NSF project looks at this issue in the light of the Asian American “model” minority. I plan to look at these issues with a focus on Latino students in my future research.

The question asks first about the different experiences of African American girls and boys in science. There is research that suggests African American students in general have more positive attitudes about science than any other subgroup. My research shows, however, that young African American women are particularly interested in science (more so than their African American male counterparts). Although data show young women of all races doing better than (or on a par with) young men early on in the science pipeline, this trend reverses itself in later stages of the science pipeline among white, but not African American students. African American girls have been shown to have more positive attitudes, take more courses, get better grades, and in general show more involvement in math and science than their male counterparts.

My research tries to provide insights into this trend by using a multi-cultural gender framework that recognizes the unique gender system in African American families. Historically, African American women have had to work. They combined work and family roles. Gender inequality in African American families has been shown to be less than in other families (whether looking at labor force participation, education, or earnings). Some have suggested that (due to a variety of cultural and economic contexts) African American women are doing better than African American men, and families (both historically and today) make more investments in their daughters than in their sons. Indeed African American families, more than white families, emphasize education and occupations as sources of mobility for their daughters. Taken together, these race and gender arrangements have created a unique gender culture in African American communities that often creates gender patterns that are the reverse of those in white communities. The gender culture in the African American community helps explain the advantages that young African American women sometimes have over African American men and white women in the science education system. This is in spite of the fact that my research shows young white women experiencing less inequality and bias in the science education system than their African American counterparts. Additionally, my results show young white women have an advantage on teacher interest, school honors, and school programs.

Whatever conclusions that we draw from gender patterns in the African American community will most likely not hold for other groups, even minority groups. My work on Asian American students in science education suggests that the gender gap in science interest and achievement is smaller in this group than in any other race/ethnic group. Both male and female Asian American students excel (and are expected to excel) in science (although there is a gender gap here as well). Both male and female Asian American students do better in science than any other gender/race subgroup, including white males. Unique aspects of Asian (and Asian American) culture and immigration experience have resulted in this pattern for Asian American women and men in the sciences.

My preliminary work on Latino youth suggests that the pattern here will be more similar to the African American pattern than the Asian American pattern. Negative stereotypes about Latinos in general and ideas about passive Latino women in particular, work against educators and administrators viewing these students as science talent. Careful research does suggest, however, considerable interest and talent in science among Latino youth with a potential advantage among Latino women.

Q: What are the key things that should change to prevent this potential loss of talent?

A: First, social scientists need to do better in their research on science talent. Too few researchers have looked carefully at how race and gender combine in the science talent process. We cannot limit ourselves to comparisons by race and comparisons by gender. Researchers also need to use multiple methods to gain insights into the experiences of women, minorities, and minority women in science. Some of the most profound insights in my research came from the use of vignettes and open-ended questions.

Second, and related to the first, researchers, educators, administrators, and policy makers should make no assumptions about science talent. They should assume (and rightly so) that all children are interested in, excited by, and have potential talent in science. As one young girl in my survey noted, “Science is not about which race likes it better, it is about doing what you like.”

Third, we need to do better at providing resources (and science resources) to all public schools regardless of their tax base. If professional sport leagues can figure out a way to spread the wealth across teams, then certainly the U.S. government can figure out a way to spread the wealth across schools.

Many young minority students enter college science programs with poor math and science training and skills. High schools need to be held accountable for providing strong science skills to all youth, not just those in advanced tracks. Tracking and differential learning opportunities create barriers for many minority youth.

Fourth, and related to the above, there is no room for racism and sexism in the U.S. education (and science education) system. We need to look at our curricula, our textbooks, our teaching methods, our teachers, and our recruitment and promotion strategies and make them gender and color blind. They are not. Minorities and women are virtually invisible in science textbooks and curricula. There are too few minority and women faculty at the higher levels of science education. Many young women in my survey complained about white teachers who teach about white scientists. One young woman stated, “I felt like they looked at us like we weren’t supposed to be scientists.”

Finally, we need to view African American families and communities as strong entities that promote education, and put a high value on science and science careers. Schools and programs should welcome African American families as a resource in encouraging and retaining science talent among minority women (and men). Research and popular thinking about African American families often has a less than positive tone. My research and that of others questions this notion and reveals considerable strength, resilience, and agency. These supportive families are the main reason young African American women sometimes manage to “swim against the tide’ of the white, male science system.

Q: What should college science programs be doing if they are concerned by your findings?

A: College and university programs can do many things to recruit and promote all young people in science, regardless of race and color. I mention just a few here. Colleges and universities need to have minorities well-represented in their student, faculty, and staff (e.g. recruitment) positions. They need to have science curricula and texts that are culturally diverse and represent all of the theories and scientists (both historically and in contemporary society) that have contributed to science knowledge. Teaching styles which accommodate multiple learning approaches would help. It is extremely important that math and science classes incorporate cooperative, practical, laboratory, and applied learning with materials presented in multiple ways with limited time constraints.

Within classrooms it is important that role modeling, self confidence building, and providing a sense of belonging be provided for minority youth. Many of these strategies are not normal parts of undergraduate science classes and programs. Providing access to labs, resources, information, assistance, mentoring, symposiums, and the intellectual community to all students, not just those viewed as elite science talent, is important. Listening to minority students and giving them a voice in the planning and executing of science programs is essential. Reaching out to minority students in high school programs and preparing and mentoring these students early on is an important element for success. Colleges and universities can also be more flexible in their criteria used for admission. There is no question that standardized exams (often used as major criteria for admission) are race and class biased. Finally, connecting minority students to science jobs through mentoring and networking will make science and science occupations more of a reality for minority students.

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