Culturally Relevant Phenomena for Antiracist Science Teaching

Anti-racist teaching requires a student-centered approach. Instruction should include active engagement in three-dimensional learning, formative assessment activities with feedback, and collaboration and communication.

To make the content meaningful for learners, we should capitalize on our students’ interests. In this post, I’ll share examples of relevant phenomena to help students make sense of abstract science ideas.

Antiracist teaching requires a student-empowering approach. Also, adding a design or engineering component could empower students around a cause important to them.

However, just like adults, children may be exhausted from the daily struggles of our current contexts. Be careful not to force them to focus on things that might cause more stress. It’s best to assess your students’ level of stress and fatigue, and being flexible enough to adjust accordingly. Contexts from typical life experiences, hobbies, and interests can be just as relevant as social justice issues. You can use this student interest survey to get to know your students. Then you can use the data generate personalized, culturally relevant phenomena for your science instruction.

Let’s get started!

Video Games

Digital games are a part of mainstream culture and will not be going away. Odds are, your students are playing games on consoles, a computer, or a mobile device regularly. Video games are not only an effective medium for deeper learning. They can also provide phenomena for STEM exploration.

For example, most middle school and high school students are at least familiar with Fortnite. As of May 2020, there were an estimated 350 million people who played the game regularly. For every game session, the Battle Bus flies in a straight line across the island. As it travels, the players jump out and parachute to the ground. My first time playing Fortnite, I wondered what it would take to build a real life Battle Bus.

This would be a great Anchoring Phenomenon for the study of physical sciences. A possible driving question could be, What’s the physics behind the Fortnite Battle Bus? Show a picture of the air ballooned bus, or a clip from the video to kickstart the lesson or unit.

Tyto Online also provides relevant phenomena for learning science as anchors for pre-built storylines. Each student customizes an avatar to represent themselves in the game. As they play, they interact with diverse non-person characters (NPCs). Then they use science to explore an ant colony with zombie ants, or solve a food shortage, for example.

Beauty Products

The hair, skin, and makeup industry has historically left out the unique needs of Black women. So many of us have resorted to creating our own products to meet our needs, and sharing them. I personally mix a body butter to moisturize and protect my sensitive, eczema-prone skin. Eczema is also called atopic dermatitis, an autoimmune condition characterized by discolored, itchy, dry, flaky skin. This condition is more prominent in African Americans.

Another personal experience involves my hair. Earlier this year, I had locs. You may know these as dreadlocks. Many of us in the Black community prefer to the term locs, because our hair should be celebrated, not dreaded. To maintain my locs, I used a store-bought product that I didn’t realize contained wax, which is bad for locs. This caused a really bad buildup in my hair that I could not remove with shampoo. It took a few days of research, trial and error to get it out. Through the process, I learned about the chemistry of hair and the importance of reading the label!

The science behind beauty products can be a great culturally relevant phenomenon for science learning. Paired with entrepreneurship, design thinking or engineering processes, it could become a great project-based learning experience.

Cultural Forest Burning

The Western United States experienced devastating wildfires this year. Native American tribes who lived in this region for thousands of years used fire to cultivate and maintain the land. Then, European colonizers prevented them from practicing their cultural burning ceremonies. Now, government agencies and Native Americans are working together to bring the practice back. Cultural burnings lower the risk of large, devastating wildfires and restores the balance of the forest ecosystem. This video describes the benefits of cultural burning. The cultural burnings phenomenon can anchor the study of thermal energy, chemical reactions, or abiotic factors of an ecosystem.

Other Phenomena?

Of course, you may have other culturally relevant phenomena based on what you know of your students and their communities. I brainstormed a list of culturally relevant phenomena arranged by disciplinary core idea just to get the ideas flowing.

DomainCulturally Relevant Phenomena Examples
Physical Science– Making beauty products (lotion, makeup, skin care), perfumes, scents
– Video clips from a local Sports team
– Cooking favorite foods, traditional dishes, or traditional methods
– The physics behind the Fortnite Battle bus
– The science behind a microwave
– Science behind the shape/structure of traditional housing (Native, Aboriginal, etc.)
Life Science– Pets and their offspring
– Local ecosystems such as a backyard or neighborhood park
– Interdependent relationships between pets and their owners
– Community gardens in food deserts
– Mutations behind human phenotypes
– Native American Cultural Forest Burning
Earth and Space Science– Natural emergencies such as volcano eruptions, earthquakes, flooding, forest fires (caused by dry lightning in California for example), hurricanes and tornadoes
– Phases of the moon
– Constellations and their movement across the sky
– Wayfinding/traditional methods of navigating

What culturally relevant phenomena can you think to add to this list? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant # IIP-1853888 to the American Society for Engineering Education.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the American Society for Engineering Education.

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