Young Black Girls + STEM Identity
March 14, 2022
For the sake of the United States' global standing (Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, 2007), attention must be focused on an appreciation of science and its basic understanding for K–12 students and a lot of the conversation has pointed to the participation of girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). On February 10, 2022, the NBC cast of the Today Show announced that they would be debuting, for the first time, a Public Service Announcement (PSA) prior to the NFL Superbowl LVI, highlighting attention to encouraging girls to enter STEM fields (Today, 2022).
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a PSA is an announcement for which no charge is made to serve community interest, and promote programs, activities, or services of the federal, state, or local governments. Popular PSAs have been the “Frying Egg” for a drug free America, “We Can Do It” for America’s wartime icon of women working in factories, and “I Want You” for enlisting in the US military. The need for encouraging girls to enter STEM is so urgent that it has made history as a PSA during an event that is within the top ten viewed matches world-wide of sporting events with the highest dollar amount per minute of air space. Olay, a cosmetic giant, committed themselves in 2020 to a 10-year program to help double the number of women in STEM and triple the number of women of color in STEM by 2030 through #faceTheSTEMGap.
The need for encouraging girls to enter STEM is so urgent that it has made history as a PSA during an event that is within the top ten viewed matches world-wide of sporting events with the highest dollar amount per minute of air space.
The Young Black Girl: A Narration of STEM Identity Through Science Origin in Elementary School is a dissertation study focused on fifth grade African American girls in the science classroom of their independent school that is predominantly Caucasian. The study asked,
- How do teachers, peers, and home influence the execution of fifth grade African American girl’s science identity work?
- How do these girls narrate their involvement with school science?
- What is their perception of how race and gender impact their involvement with school science?
The participant’s school space provided hands-on science time above the national average and greater than the National Research Council’s recommended time. The participant’s science teacher maintained a classroom that was a liberal ideologic atmosphere with students freely moving, standing, and assisting one another without impediment from the teacher. It was also found that the participant’s home influence ranged from middle to working social class and with science being discussed in the home to science not being discussed in the home. Lastly, the participants - though in a majority Caucasian setting - did not feel that their race nor gender had any bearing on their school science experience. Yet, with the consistency of a school space providing science experiences and time that typically go hand-in-hand with children favoring science, despite variations at home, the participants felt neutral toward their views of science, neither enthused nor bored.
A major undercurrent revealed was the lack of a pathway for the students to connect their home life/culture/lived experiences to their classroom science.
Integrating one’s lived experience into their classroom is not merely an exercise of “homework”. Lived experiences are the happenings or involvements of one, the gained knowledge from these experiences, and how these experiences shape into one’s evolving culture (Esteban-Guitar & Moll, 2014; Hedges, 2015; Monzo & Rueda, 2003; Overby et al., 2022; Parsons & Mensah, 2010). Science educators have suggested that making a “connection” to the lived experiences of students’ everyday lives has the potential to decrease the science achievement gap for students historically marginalized to STEM (Barton, 2001; Chapman & Feldman, 2017; Emdin, 2011, 2016; Haverly et al., 2020; Tobin et al., 2001; Seiler, 2001). Tobin et al., (2001) insists that teachers must, “employ a radically new approach to teaching” (p. 942). Teachers in schools with a high percentage of African-American children and low-income families frequently have limited resources, where high-stake test preparation and classroom management drive teaching decisions (Huber & Moore, 2000; Pringle & Martin, 2005; Shaver et al., 2007). Students of color specifically thrive better in science when teachers are capable of drawing from the student’s prior knowledge as well as their unique experiences and ethnic identities to foster their learning (Atwater & Riley, 1993; Barton, et al., 2008; Darling-Hammond et al., 1996).
Racial identity is one of three (racial, disciplinary, and academic) intersecting identities when African American children are in a STEM space. School environments are made healthier for all students regardless of the subject when the school provides an avenue for African-American students and other underrepresented students to discuss feelings of being in said group (DeCuir-Gunby et al., 2012; Gardner & Miranda, 2001). In this respect, women in science report loneliness, microaggression, and racism (Kilgore et al., 2020; Yang & Carroll, 2018). When schools do not foster conversations related to race, it decreases a student’s ability in knowing how to respond should they encounter racism at their school, as well as when they are older, as well as decreasing others ability to be advocates (DeCuir-Gunby et al., 2012). A lack of these conversations sends the message to students that their racial identity is unimportant (DeCuir-Gunby et al., 2012).
To meet workforce demands and advance innovation, STEM careers need the imaginations and skills of those who have been historically marginalized to STEM (Hoeg & Bencze, 2017). Women represent half of the U.S.’ workforce, yet they comprise only 27 percent of STEM jobs (AAUW, 2022).
To meet workforce demands and advance innovation, STEM careers need the imaginations and skills of those who have been historically marginalized to STEM...women represent half of the U.S. workforce, yet they comprise only 27 percent of STEM jobs.
For example, in engineering and computer-related jobs, Latinas and African American women make up only 2% of these jobs (Fry et al., 2021). A representation of women in the STEM workforce at a level that is comparable to their proportion in the total workforce would alleviate the projected gap in STEM jobs (NSF, 2000) and inequities such as these propel PSAs concerning girls in STEM. The topic can no longer be pushed aside.
AAUW Issues: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education. https://ww3.aauw.org/what-we-do/public-policy/aauw-issues/stem-education/
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Traylor, J., & Sindler, R. (2022). Watch the TODAY gang throw it back to the ’70s in a new Super Bowl PSA. Today. https://www.today.com/popculture/today-show-anchors-super-bowl-psa-stem-rcna15857
Written by: Heather F. Lavender, PhD
Dr. Lavender graduated from LSU in December 2021. Dr. Lavender's dissertation, The Young Black Girl: A Narration of STEM Identity through Science Origin in Elementary School was a runner up to LSU's Distinguished Dissertation Award. Dr. Lavender is currently pursuing employment with private research firms and consulting with math education researchers at the University of Georgia. Dr. Lavender is an active member of the Association for Science Teacher Educators.