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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How Black Students Tend to Learn Science


Ryan Hynd wouldn't call it an epiphany but he doesn’t deny that the research program he joined the summer of his junior year at Georgia Tech shaped his career. “It wasn't exactly a turning point, but it was like an awakening. I definitely got an idea of what it’s like to be a mathematician.” he said. “I don’t think I stopped and told myself that this was it, but that’s when I knew there was no turning back.”

Hynd, who is of Jamaican descent and now works as an assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s math department, is talking about his time at the Berkeley Science Network. The program recruits underrepresented groups into science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—fields. Hynd was one of the lucky ones: In those areas women and African-Americans are severely underrepresented, making up just 24 percent and 3 percent of the STEM workforce, respectively.

Societal and pop-culture norms help explain why this has historically been the case. The popular ‘90s children’s cartoon Dexter’s Laboratory offers one example of the oftentimes-subtle sexist portrayals of science in pop culture. Dexter is brilliant, curious, and sharp, albeit a little eccentric. His sister “Dee Dee” (the moniker alone gives off the air of someone more simple-minded) mirrors Dexter’s eccentrism, too, but in her that characteristic is far more insidious. She doesn’t want to solve problems or even learn for that matter; instead, she spends her time ruining Dexter’s experiments. Her catchphrase, “Ooo what does this button do,” encapsulates that disposition. (Women of course suffer unique challenges in the field.) Minorities, on the other hand, rarely enjoy the ‘luxury’ of a misappropriated image in the first place; they’re hardly portrayed in the media in STEM-related fields, at least not as they are in business, music, or sports.

Attempts to mitigate this gap have made some headway. Last year, The GZA, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan hip-hop group, partnered with Columbia University to create “Science Genius BATTLES” (Bringing Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science), a competition where students performed science-themed rhymes. However, while programs like that may work in a vacuum, on a macro scale the question of solving STEM’s diversity problem still looms.

Recent data could hold the key to closing STEM’s diversity gap in the classroom and offer insight into how different student groups learn as a whole. Kelly Hogan, a biology professor at the University of North Carolina, and Sarah L. Eddy, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington, recently completed a study, “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work.” The study delves into how differences in race, culture, and a family’s higher-education background can affect the methodologies by which students learn. It also encourages debate about whether college courses—specifically STEM-related ones—are using archaic teaching approaches, especially considering today’s increasingly diverse student populations.

Hogan initially became interested in the STEM achievement gap after data from own class showed that one in three African-American students earned Ds and Fs while the white and Asian children flourished. “It’s easy to think that you are a good teacher because you receive positive feedback from students but outcomes like this made me re-think if I was good,” she said.

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