June 4, 2020

Anti-Racist Ways to Teach Science

Dr. Holly Pope

In response to the outcry about systematic racism and police violence against black people in our nation today, many educators are wondering what they can do in their classrooms to create a more just society. This list of suggestions is by no means comprehensive, but does contain actions that can be taken by all science educators, regardless of where or whom they teach.

1. Do the inner work.

Self-reflection should be the first step in dismantling the conscious (and insidiously unconscious) racism that pervades our society. After all, the only actions we can truly control are our own.  Dr. Dena Simmons, a practitioner-scholar of social and emotional learning (SEL), recommends five actions for becoming an anti-racist educator. The first and only action I will mention here is to engage in vigilant self-awareness. As a reflection exercise, think about the following data:

  • Black* boys are three times more likely to be suspended than White boys.
  • Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than White girls.  

            Now ask yourself:

  • How does my identity provide or prevent access to resources?
  • How do my perceptions of students, their families, and their backgrounds affect my interactions and instructional practices?

I have an example of how my identity as a Black woman prevented access to resources.

I was on a road trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina back in 2014. I stopped at a Dollar General to get a car charger for my phone. I purchased the charger, opened it up and plugged it in before I drove out of the parking lot, but the charger didn’t work. So I took the charger, wrapper, and receipt back into the store to exchange it, and the White store manager says, “You people always buy something, use it, and try to get your money back when you don’t need it anymore! You can’t exchange it and you can’t get your money back.” She didn’t care that I had just bought it 10 minutes before, and that it didn’t work. Needless to say, I was stuck with a faulty charger. I drove to another store to purchase a different one.

In the above scenario, someone’s perceptions of me as a Black woman affected not only my access to resources, but also how they interacted with me. This woman made an assumption about me based on the color of my skin. She assumed that I had ulterior motives and was trying to take advantage of store policies somehow. This is a mild example of the interactions I’ve experienced regularly.

I encourage you to check out the “Where to Start” resources at Teaching While White to dive deeper into ways for you to examine the role your identity plays in interactions with students. 

2. Use the strengths of your students, families, and their communities in your teaching.

  • Learn about your students through an Interest inventory, interviews, or autobiography activities to help students tell their stories of who they are, their hopes, and dreams. Be sensitive to family structures, traditions, and practices that may not fit Western ideas of family. For example, it is very common in Black social structures for people who are not blood relatives to be incorporated as part of the family and referred to as mother, father, uncle, aunt, or cousin. These bonds are just as important, sometimes even moreso, than blood ties. 
  • Use media and literature based on their interests to create context for learning science concepts.  For example, use movie clips that illustrate the role that Blacks played in advancing science, such as Something the Lord Made or Hidden Figures.  Find nonfiction sources that feature Black doctors, scientists and scholars such as Katherine Johnson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Mae Jemison.
  • Use storylines to anchor your science instruction in a meaningful context for students to drive their curiosity and engagement, which can also be tied in to relevant texts or media.   

3. Hold High Expectations for ALL of your Students, and help them work towards meeting them. 

  • Foster three-dimensional learning through high-level tasks such as science projects or engineering design challenges. 
  • Formative assessment such as exit slips or performance-based tasks with ongoing feedback that help students progress toward the learning goals. The Stanford NGSS Assessment Project (SNAP) has examples of performance tasks that you could use.  
  • Collaboration on experiments and challenges and communication such as notebook writing, scientific debates, and discussions. 

This point will be addressed further in another post. 

4. Use curricula, tasks, and texts that feature scientists of ALL races, even if your students are mostly one race/ethnicity.

Incorporate professionals from nondominant cultures in your course, such as expert panels, virtual field trips to places with diverse staff in scientific roles, and feature trailblazers of color throughout the year, not just during designated heritage months. 

It’s important for children to see diverse representations of scientists because this dispels stereotypes of who can excel in STEM careers.

5. Be aware of how science curricula may hide injustices and perpetuate stereotypes. 

Brian Donovan, a researcher at BSCS in Colorado, works with biology teachers to address genetic differences in secondary courses as a way to dispel misconceptions about correlations between race, IQ, and athletic ability. 

Race is a social construct, not biologically determined by genetics. Only a tiny fraction of genetic material contributes to the characteristics that have been socially prescribed as "race” for political dominance. This article explains how modern science supports new understandings that race is not biological.  This is not to say that we should be colorblind. Because the idea of race is used as a tool of social oppression, we can’t ignore it. It is imperative for us to recognize how certain physical traits are privileged over others.

It’s also important to understand that many scientific advances have been made not only because of notable Black scientists, but also at the expense of non-consenting Black people, such as modern gynecology, the Tuskegee experiments, and Henrietta Lacks, from whom the HeLa cells were taken and used for scientific advancements without her or her family’s consent. 


Anti-Racist teaching is hard. 

It requires all of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, to examine our own ideas about race and what it means to be human. It’s hard work because we have to look deep into our societal values, expectations, and structures, questioning deeply-rooted assumptions at the core of American society.

* We choose to capitalize "Black" in this post because the word is being used as a proper noun to identify a specific group of people, in the same way that Native, Asian American, and Mexican American are capitalized.


We're committed to continuing to integrate anti-racist science approaches into Tyto Online.

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