Improving Black representation in science education

Caitlin Brown, education manager at the British Science Association, explores how teachers can raise awareness and celebrate the work of Black scientists in the curriculum – not just during Black History Month, but year-round

With discovery and innovation at its core, science has a reputation for being one of the most forward-thinking sectors. However, when it comes to diversity, and in particular representation of Black scientists, the industry sadly falls incredibly short.

A recent report by the Royal Society found that there are just 65 Black science professors in the UK, compared to 10,560 White science professors. Furthermore, White STEM academics are three times more likely to become professors than their Black colleagues.

Science impacts each and every one of us, yet many people from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds still do not have opportunities to engage with science and experience the exciting education and career opportunities available in that sphere. This lack of diversity puts a limit on what we can achieve in science.

Starting in the classroom, we need to overcome these barriers and ensure Black students are inspired, represented and equipped with the confidence and skills to thrive in science. By putting the spotlight on Black role models in the curriculum and dispelling the myths and misconceptions around careers in science, we can encourage more Black students to gravitate towards a profession in the industry.

Make science learning personal

Thanks to the work of organisations such as The Black Curriculum, we are starting to see improvements with representation of Black history in schools. However, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done to make the curriculum fully inclusive of Black experiences, not least in science. This must be embedded through ongoing curriculum-aligned initiatives which educate around, and celebrate, the work of Black scientists, not just as part of Black History Month.

Research has found that when Black role models are advocated, Black students feel a greater sense of belonging in STEM and are subsequently more likely to pursue science at further education, and as a possible career pathway.

Take, for example, the role model of Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, who became the UK’s first sickle-cell and Thalassaemia nursing expert. Her ground-breaking work led to the nationwide screening of babies for the condition and her passionate campaigning has contributed to greater understanding of sickle cell disease within the NHS.

Her scientific achievements are made all the more impressive when considering the discrimination she faced throughout her career. In an interview with the Royal College of Nursing, Dame Elizabeth gave advice to Black nursing professionals: “Have confidence in who you are as a Black nurse and look for role models in literature, history and people you work with or have heard of, so you can see what others have done when you feel overwhelmed.”

Whilst discussing the inspiring work of Dame Elizabeth, why not also engage students with a practical project based on a real-life challenge in health and medicine? You could task students with making their own aspirin or paracetamol, for instance, to get them thinking about what makes effective pain relievers.

Hands-on investigative projects such as this are an effective way to help students think like real-life scientists and relate their science learning to its everyday application, boosting engagement as they see first-hand how chemistry and biology connect with their own lives.

Students could also consider the topic of food transportation and preservation in light of the work of Frederick McKinley Jones, the Black pioneer of the automatic refrigeration equipment used in long-haul trucks transporting food in the late 1940s.

His invention revolutionised many aspects of society and has shaped the world we live in today. It enabled grocery stores to buy and sell products from far distances without risking them spoiling, for example, and – beyond food – it made blood transportation possible during World War II, saving thousands of lives.

To spark students’ curiosity around the topic of food transportation and preservation, inspired by the innovations of McKinley Jones, why not encourage them to investigate food fraud? Students could research food scams in the news, devise a test to determine whether wine has been contaminated with diethylene glycol, or use DNA tests to find out and compare what kinds of fish are used in products such as fish fingers for different brands.

Teachers should further support students to research Black role models who are working in scientific fields of interest to them and encourage them to become experts by sharing what they have found with their peers. This provides a wonderful springboard for students to undertake a project inspired by their role models’ work. Whether it’s investigating solutions to dehydration or discovering how to make a skateboard, relatable science activities provide a vehicle for students to explore their passions and take their learning to the next level.

Teachers can also personalise and localise science by helping students to identify Black role models within their extended families or local communities. You could ask students to create presentations reflecting on their personal Black science heroes to share with the class, so everyone gets the opportunity to learn about and engage with different role models and the positive impact that they have.

Schools could even invite local Black science professionals and Black students studying science at further education and in apprenticeships to return to the classroom to share their science journeys with students. Ideally, this would happen throughout the year.

Raising awareness of Black scientists in school and providing practical opportunities for students to test and develop their own scientific talents will ultimately help to bring the learning closer to home for Black students, and help to raise both education and career aspirations.

Showcasing the career pathways in science

Another challenge hindering many underrepresented students from pursuing science, technology, engineering or maths-based further education and jobs is a lack of awareness around the varied career options available to them.

There is often a misconception that those interested in science cannot also be interested in other more creative subjects, such as the arts. In reality, science is an incredibly broad and cross-disciplinary field which opens doors to numerous professions for young people, such as sales, marketing, teaching and academia, space exploration, the armed forces and environmental research.

Take, for example, Oti Mabuse, the professional ballroom dancer who also studied civil engineering for four years. One interesting task could be asking students to list all the different science-based professions they can think of, and then compare and contrast this with their peers. In doing so, students may be surprised to learn about the different professions open to those who study science.

Young people need to be able to visualise appealing and realistic career pathways into science, so it’s important to convey to students from all walks of life that there is no definition for who or what a scientist can be.

In order to help students feel included, inspired and prepared with the knowledge to pursue their science dreams, the school science curriculum must champion the achievements of Black pioneers, offer practical advice on the various STEM careers available, and give students the chance to take ownership of their learning through hands-on, inquiry-based projects. This should happen throughout the year, and every year.

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