Shining Spotlights: Anti-racism and STEM Education
Again the siren sounds. The recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of law enforcement have aroused desperate calls for change that continue to reverberate through the streets and airwaves of our nation and world. In the process, a collective spotlight has turned toward the violent forms of racism perpetrated throughout our history right up to the present hour. But further revealed in the spotlight’s outer glow are the surface features of the deep, often hidden, daily forms of oppression that people of color have suffered for so long in all corners of society. The calls for meaningful change have found their way into the collective discourse in a way that at least feels different this time around. The most urgent activism is pushing on the life-and-death issues of racism and law enforcement, but the conversation also inevitably reaches into issues of voting, immigration, health care, housing, economic opportunity, and education.
From our Loyola community’s Ignatian perspective of social justice, we work in the hope that this moment is a point of historical inflection. We also recognize that if meaningful change is to follow from these tragic losses of life, the discourse must transform into action—into the collective, ongoing, difficult work of shining spotlights and keeping them lit as we reconsider every facet of our society from a perspective of anti-racism. Each of us has our work to do given our identities and positioning in the social world. As a middle-class, white American male, my own work begins in the daily struggle to recognize my biases and privilege, to train my eyes to see oppression in the myriad of places it lives, and to strengthen a voice to work against it.
As educators and students, we are further called to turn the beam upon our disciplinary areas of expertise. At the Center for Science and Math Education, our work is focused on expanding science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) literacy and equity in K-12 and undergraduate education. Our specific question to ask in this work is, “What does anti-racism mean in the context of STEM education?”
A common response is that math and science are disciplinary areas that are thankfully free from the concerns of racism and oppression, instead dealing with analytical reasoning expressed in a universal, abstract, culturally agnostic language. Out of this belief the question is asked, “How can an equation be racist?” Yet in recent decades, research in STEM education has painted a very different picture of math and science as deeply cultural endeavors in themselves, fully subject to the oppressive and reproductive forces of a dominant culture’s narrative. Not unrelatedly, the STEM community—both academic and professional— remains a disproportionately white and Asian community, persistently under-represented in numbers and in the diverse perspectives of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous participants. While an equation may not be inherently racist, STEM education is a deeply racialized space where biases, stereotype threat, and educational opportunity gaps hold tremendous sway in who gets to participate in STEM and who does not.
Furthermore, the impact of STEM education among students of color extends beyond inclusion or exclusion from STEM professions. Through his groundbreaking work as a prominent math educator and civil rights activist, Bob Moses has for decades championed the cause of mathematics as a civil right that affords to its participants full citizenship and a voice in democracy, but that is denied to so many students of color. Broadly speaking, math and science literacy can mean a seat at the table for those who have been refused, and a voice in the room for those who have gone unheard.
Yet the difficult questions persist about what can be done toward re-defining STEM education as an anti-racist space, about how to level the playing field against the uphill run that exists for so many students of color. There are certainly policies to consider in K-16 STEM education around de-tracking, diversifying teaching corps, engaging students’ identities in STEM learning, broadening criteria of competence, instituting support communities for students in under-represented groups, and undertaking serious approaches to anti-racist pedagogy. These ideas are easy to speak about and tremendously difficult to enact against the status quo. But perhaps they all begin with something simpler—with an honest acknowledgement of the institutional struggle students of color face along their pathways in STEM. Or simpler yet, with a spoken word of encouragement or offer of mentorship to a particular student of color, recognizing his or her hard work and brilliance along the tilted, uphill run.
Assuming we recognize there is a morally imperative conversation to be had about anti-racism in STEM education, how do we enter into that conversation? Finding the answer requires each of us to shine our own spotlights into every corner of the rooms in which we do our work as educators and learners. If we are willing to look hard enough, what comes into view may be painful. The work of equity and social justice often is. But what could be more deserving of our best efforts?
--Timothy Stoelinga, Director
Thank you to the CSME staff who contributed to the writing and editing of this reflection.