Myth: Science is becoming more diverse over time.
Truth: Although we want to believe that society is becoming more progressive and an increasing number of members of underrepresented groups (women, underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ+ etc.) are entering science, this is simply not the case. The percentage of women and underrepresented minorities entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) is not increasing at any appreciable rate. Unfortunately not enough data is available to make any such claim about LGBTQ+ scientists. This is a problem in itself.
We are a group of students who organized a GISP on Race and Gender in the Scientific Community. We are working closely with University Administrators on institutional solutions, and would like to give students the chance to support and critique our efforts. Many university programs only support survival mechanisms, which are necessary but temporary for addressing underrepresentation in STEM. Below are transformative strategies we would like the University to prioritize and implement, focusing on the University’s goal to support underrepresented minorities in STEM. This is what we came up with as a result of our study--we would love to hear your input on what other strategies are necessary to create meaningful change. If you support the strategies listed below and have a Brown University email address, please sign this form.
Google is celebrating Annie Jump Cannon's 151st birthday and so are we! Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) was an American astronomer who was extremely influential in classifying stars and in developing the current classification scheme. In her lifetime she classified around 350,000 stars, a number which has yet to be topped by another astronomer. Read her full biography here, or listen to it here.
Annie Jump Cannon is a testament to the success of (white) women in scientific careers despite the fact that science was dominated by white men. She is one of multitudes of successful non-white-men in science. Unfortunately, many of these other stories have been silenced or forgotten in favor of a more consistent white male narrative. This narrative is not only dishonest, it is also harmful to future scientists who are not given the opportunity to see themselves in the pictures of traditionally successful scientists. We can and should work to tell diverse histories in science classrooms. How we tell stories about the history of science says as much about us as about the history itself. Presenting a white-male-only view of science history is a choice.
The lists of female/black/hispanic scientists are endless. A quick google search will bring up as many results as one could desire. Yet why are these narratives not making it into our classrooms? Here are a few of our favorite lists of female/black/hispanic scientists:
Finding a qualified female professor for the physics department is “as rare as a fang in an owl’s mouth,” said Michael Kosterlitz, professor of physics and chair of the Committee for Faculty Equity and Diversity.
The recent Brown Daily Herald series on institutionalized racism prompted us to look for older Herald articles. We found an interesting article from 2011, Faculty remains mostly male, white, documenting the faculty demographics then. Included in the article are several quotes from faculty members which fail to show a strong commitment to diversity. We are glad that the more recent Herald articles provide a more researched description of the issue.
Underrepresented minorities currently make up 8.1% of Brown University's faculty. Nationally, 12.6% of the U.S. population identifies as African American or Black, and 16.4% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latin@. (Data from the 2010 Census). Even compared to these numbers, which account only for the largest racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S., 8.1% is strikingly small. Faculty of color face an overwhelming number of structural barriers, from bias in the hiring process to unequal demands on time once hired. For a more detailed description of the inequalities faced by faculty of color, read the full Brown Daily Herald article on structural racism at Brown University.
The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University is well loved by all. Dr. Kathy Takayama, Executive Director of the Sheridan Center, joined our class on Dec. 1 for a discussion of effective teaching strategies and how student identity affects interaction with course material. Dr. Takayama started the discussion by dividing the class in half. She read 28 words out loud to the entire class and asked us all to check yes or no based on criteria written at the top of the sheet. We were then asked to write down as many of the 28 words as we could remember. Individuals on the left side of the classroom remembered approximately 19 words while individuals on the right side of the classroom remembered roughly 9 words. Dr. Takayama then revealed to us that the left half of the class had been asked to decide whether the word was ‘pleasant’. The right half had been asked to determine whether the letters E or G were present in the word. The students who were asked whether the word was ‘pleasant’ were forced to process the word in depth, i.e. interact with the word on a personal level by relating the word to personal experiences. Those looking for an E/G were practicing shallow processing. Clearly, deep processing allowed students to remember significantly more words. This simple exercise illustrates Dr. Takayama’s take home message: what matters the most for successful learning is what you are thinking about when you see new information. Processing information by relating it to personal experience allows for a better understanding of the material.
It is important for professors to understand how students learn and that different students will have different experiences regarding the material. For example, a student who had the opportunity to visit natural history museums during their childhood may have an easier time processing a lecture on fossils on a deep level than a student who did not have such opportunities. This is because the student who has sen fossils in a museum will be able to recall this event while the professor is speaking, i.e. they will be able to relate course material to personal experience. Science, in particular, can often be difficult to process on a deep level because in science we are constantly writing the people out. Journal articles focus exclusively on hypotheses, experiments, or theories, and never on the researchers or authors themselves. This is all a part of the myth of objective science that we continue to discuss in this course. Science may feel that by writing the author out we can collectively ignore identity and in doing so provide a fair platform for all participants. However, it is impossible to ignore identity and harmful to pretend that this is possible. The effectiveness of deep processing over shallow processing shows that an individual’s experiences (where identity plays an undeniable role) are indeed integral to the learning, and thus scientific, process. Additionally, as Dr. Jo Handelsman showed in her eye-opening article Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students, the difference between a male or female sounding name can be enough to change hiring decisions. The study sent identical resumes to several potential employers. Some resumes had traditionally female names, while others had traditionally male names. The ‘male’ applicants were offered positions more often and were offered a higher starting salary on average. This shows that identity and bias do matter and we should not try to write it out. Check your own bias with the Implicit Association Test. The only way to combat the effects of bias are to be conscious of our own biases.
Dr. Takyama asked us to think about the following question: How can science bring the individual back in? We collectively decided that this is a process which has to happen over time. The culture must change so that science is a safe space where individuals feel comfortable discussing their identities. One easy way to write the individual back in to science is to have students in introductory classes spend 15 minutes 2-3 times throughout the semester writing about values that are important to them. This values affirmation exercise has been shown to close the ‘gender gap’ in science classrooms. We recommend that all instructors use this exercise in their classrooms. In addition, we recommend that instructors make an active effort to participate in more discussions surrounding the identities of their students and peers.
As Brown University celebrates 250 years of educating students we, as students at Brown, wanted to take some time to learn about the 50 year long partnership between Brown and Tougaloo college, a historically black college near Jackson, Mississippi. Although the Brown University–Tougaloo College Partnership (BTP) take many forms, the most widely known program is the semester exchange, which allows students from Brown and Tougaloo to switch schools for a semester or a year. We were fortunate to be joined in our discussion by Dean Bhattacharyya, the Brown coordinator of this program. Dean Bhattacharyya has found the semester exchange program to be profoundly influential because it allows students to find their place, discover who they are, and learn to establish friendships across differences. One challenge this program continues to face is the differing views on what makes a good education. Brown, with more money and prestige, has had difficulties in deciding where Tougaloo credits fit in to Brown concentration requirements. We postulated that this might be particularly difficult in the sciences where classes build directly on their pre-requisites. We recommended therefore that an effort be made to extend the exchange program to Brown science students. This program is, of course, open to all students now, however strict concentration requirements make it more difficult for science students to spend a semester away from Brown. One way to make the program more accessible to Brown science students would be to create an integrated Brown–Tougaloo course plan. For example, Brown students could take some of their introductory science courses at Tougaloo where the courses are smaller, there is more faculty involvement, and students are less likely to feel lost or invisible. This could be particularly helpful for underrepresented minorities and other group whose members often report feeling invisible in Brown’s classrooms. We have seen that a successful and fulfilling experience in introductory science classes is invaluable, even necessary, in the decision of underrepresented minorities to continue on in science. No two experiences in the Brown–Tougaloo exchange program are the same and experiences cannot be assumed prior to participation, however previous participants give the program overwhelmingly positive reviews. We would like to see more science students taking advantage of the Brown-Tougaloo exchange program.
Around this same time, some Tougaloo students believed that the exchange program should only be open to black students. This certainly shows one way in which the Brown-Tougaloo partnership has developed over the past 50 years. In addition, we were shocked to learn about a former program, the Brown-Tougaloo Joint Engineering Program. One article, “Blacks in Engineering”, shows clear recognition of many of the issues we have spent the semester talking about. This article opens with the following sentence:
Although Blacks constitute approximately 11% of the population of the United State, only 1% of the engineers graduated from accredited colleges and universities at the end of the 1972-1973 academic year were Black.
It is saddening to realize that, despite this recognition, little has changed in the past 40 years. 12.6% of the U.S. population now identifies as African-American or Black while only 3.8% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to people identifying as African-American or Black (see figure on the left, note that this figure shows data for underrepresented minorities, which is defined by the NSF for the purposes of this graph to include blacks, hispanics, and American Indians). We hope to do more with this course than simply raise awareness. The rate of progress that we have seen over the past 40 years, less than 1% increase per decade in blacks in science, is massively too slow. At this rate it would take at least another 150 years for there to be an equal representation of blacks in science and the U.S. population at large. We are not willing to wait this long.
Institutional barriers complicate access to academic science for white women and underrepresented minorities. The barriers we have discussed this semester can be broken down into two categories: structural and behavioral. Structural barriers are aspects of a structure, in our case the structure is academic science, which make it difficult for underrepresented minorities and white women to succeed in academic science. Behavioral barriers are actions preformed by individuals which make it difficult for members of underrepresented groups to succeed. We compiled a list of structural and behavioral barriers to success for underrepresented minorities and white women at the undergraduate level.
On November 19 Dean David Targan, Associate Dean of the College for Science at Brown University, talked to our class about the impacts he has made at Brown University. Dean Targan is currently responsibilities through the Dean of the College include New Scientist (NSP) and Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) programming. DeanTargan studied physics as an undergraduate at Brown. After attending UCLA and U. Minnesota, where he earned an M.A. and Ph.D., he returned to Brown as a Physics faculty member. Dean Targan has been interested in the issues of gender in the physics community since his days as an undergraduate. As a faculty member at Brown he was able to attend conference on Women in Physics, sponsored by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). While at this conference many women approached Dean Targan with stories of uncomfortable experiences during job interviews at Brown. The knowledge gained at this conference combined with his longstanding interest in equality led Dean Targanto apply for an NSF grant to start a mentoring program for women which was to support about 20 students. However, at the informational session, the room was overflowing with students. Dean Targan realized that there was a huge amount of interested in and need for a change in Brown’s STEM fields. Dean Targan started the WiSE program, which is still running today. Subsequently, Dean Targan planned a minority program (NSP), which is also currently active although still smaller than WiSE. These programs were not started easily. Dean Targan received several letters criticizing his decision to found WiSE. These letters argued that the money would have been better spent on research. Interestingly, at least one of the authors of these letters wrote a follow up letter about a decade later apologizing and stating that his daughter was currently an undergraduate science student and the author now saw the need for programs like WiSE.
We got the chance to ask Dean Targan several questions. His responses are summarized here.
Q: Have you seen changes in physics over time?
A: Positive changes in the environment have occurred when people retired and were replaced by younger people who were more educated about these topics. Faculty members who have been hired recently are more interested in talking about their students and how to be an effective teacher. In the beginning, WiSE offered undergraduates some financial support to work in research labs at Brown. This gave certain faculty members a chance to see the strength of their students, perhaps students who would otherwise go unnoticed. While this program was running it created a positive change in the culture of Brown science departments.
Q: What is your understanding of what the problems are?
A: The list of problems has stayed more or less constant over the years. There is a lack of role models and a lack of a critical mass of women and minority scientists. Other problems include lack of sufficient financial aid (although Brown’s move to need blind admissions under president Ruth Simmons helped to alleviate this somewhat), stereotype threat, and impostor syndrome. With the move to need blind admission came an increase in the number of students interested in science, particularly 1st generation college students and underrepresented minority students. There is not enough academic support for all of these students. For example, the Catalyst program, a pre-orientation program run by NSP that “prepares incoming first-years for the rigors of a science concentration at Brown”, in the past has had to limit its enrollment in order to do justice to its students. Therefore Catalyst has, unfortunately, not been able to address the needs of a larger cohort of students entering Brown with an interest in science. However, we are looking at ways to address those needs, by expanding Catalyst or by replacing it with a similar program, while increasing support for NSP.