Meaningful Cultural Representation in STEM Curriculum

How can STEM be taught in ways that increase the visibility of African-American heritage and its role in science and technology? This project focuses on curriculum development efforts that go beyond ‘performative’ diversity in science education, to more meaningful inclusion

Instructor: Dr. Catherine Quinlan, Assistant Professor in Science Education

By: Noha Hazzazi

This course is about applied research aimed at increasing representation of African-American heritage in STEM curriculum, implemented at the undergraduate level.

The Course

Learning Objectives

This case study features a curriculum development project designed to increase the visibility of African-American heritage in STEM. The principal investigator, Dr. Catherine Quinlan, is a professor of Science Education at Howard University where her research on culturally representative science pedagogy is being piloted in her undergraduate preservice education courses and with in-service teachers, administrators, and university science educators  who attend her webinars and conference presentations. The curriculum is created for K-12 science education standards and includes several technological products made for classroom use. This is the first STEM curriculum model of its kind that embeds the historical, social and cultural narratives of African-Americans into STEM concepts.

Background: The Problem to tackle

African-American narratives have largely been absent and undervalued in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) pedagogy. As efforts to diversify cultural representation in various fields of education are increasing, there is a greater call for instructional science materials reflecting the experiences and contributions of people of color. Black cultural resources are often portrayed as underdeveloped or lacking credibility in contrast to positive representations of white, European cultural products. Such representation can have lasting damaging effects on the psyches of black students at all stages of learning. Education is meant to positively influence identity development in learners and promote awareness of diverse peoples and cultural backgrounds. It is important, therefore, that educators use educational products that center the voices and historical accounts of people of color for their students.

Dr. Catherine Quinlan’s ‘Cultural Representation in STEM Curriculum’ project elevates the visibility of people of color with an emphasis on African-American heritage and Black African heritage. Her work is facilitated by a Catalyst Project grant from the National Science Foundation which supports historically black colleges and universities by helping faculty strengthen their STEM undergraduate education and research. In developing the project, Dr. Quinlan was influenced by two key issues:

  1. The realization that science has been decontextualized from its various sources of knowledge and that the contributions of black and indigenous cultures have generally been omitted or diluted.
  2. The observation that diversity in science education has often been implemented in performative ways. While there may be some inclusion of cultural representation in science instruction, it often does not meaningfully connect with the content that students are learning.

The project’s aim is to recontextualize science curriculum by incorporating African-American historical narratives into pedagogy in practical ways. It examines how the lived experiences, heritage and accomplishments of black cultures can be used toward creating a culturally representative STEM curriculum that can be implemented in classrooms and be supported by the Next Generation Science Standards. The project’s research centers cultural groups across the African diaspora from the U.S. to the African continent. Uplifting African-American representation in STEM and normalizing inclusionary teaching practices in the classroom can be greatly beneficial for all students. The curriculum materials include books, animations, lesson plans and webinars geared towards K-12 science education.

Culturally Representative Curriculum Materials

What does culturally representative pedagogy look like in a classroom setting?

The primary objective for increasing cultural visibility in STEM is to help students to see aspects of themselves in the lessons they are being taught. The curriculum developed by Dr. Quinlan highlights black heritage resources originating from African-American peoples themselves. Embedding these cultural resources in science makes them more palatable to learners of all backgrounds and contextualizes science in history and culture. Meaningfully incorporating cultural representation can be a challenging task. There is a pervasive idea that science cannot be learned by looking at the practices of people of color. But this project demonstrates that doing so is possible when content is delivered using an informed approach.

This project primarily uses cultural resources from the African-American Gullah people of South Carolina and best practices in science education to develop a science curriculum that adequately represents African-American people. The science modules being developed are also influenced by an understanding of  the resources of black students attending HBCUs. Qualitative data collection, qualitative research methods, schema theory, and pre- and post- lesson questionnaires will be combined to examine the project’s guiding research questions: How do participants’ feelings, attitudes, and views about the social, racial, and cultural embeddedness and nature of science change? How do participants’ understandings about the involvement and participation of African Americans in science change? How do participants’ pedagogical and science content knowledge change?

Dr. Quinlan has produced a number of instructional materials that incorporate African American representation in science education:

  1. Animation and Visual Media Animation is an effective way to combine science and cultural representation in an engaging way.  An animated lesson was created to explore the societal impacts of sugar featuring a brief overview of the discovery, harvesting, global trade, consumption and health-related impacts of sugar. The video locates the indigenous origins of sugar, discusses the ways it has been refined and increasingly consumed over time, and provides statistics on health risks associated with a sugar-heavy diet. The animation includes black and brown representation throughout, from aboriginal peoples to a modern-day African-American family. The health statistics demonstrate the disproportionate diagnoses of diabetes among ethnic minorities in comparison to non-hispanic whites. Overall, the messaging of the video is portrayed in a culturally representative way that can be easily received by people of all ages and backgrounds.
Quinlan, C.L. (Producer, 2020, December 11). Silent  Sugar: The Impacts on Societies. [Animation]. Youtube

2. Lesson Plans Incorporating African Art

Images of African Rock Art courtesy of the British Museum.

Another way to increase cultural representation is to create lessons on the nature of science using archeological findings from ancient Africa. African Rock Art image analysis is one of the central units in the Visibility in STEM curriculum. Dr. Quinlan uses photographs of ancient rock art to teach core concepts in life science, physical science, and earth science. Crosscutting concepts such as cause and effect, scale and proportion, energy and matter, and pattern development can also be taught in this lesson. Students are able to use their schema (prior knowledge) and critical thinking skills to make inferences about environmental and cultural conditions in ancient Africa.

3. A Chapter Book Series

Dr. Quinlan’s fictional book series entitled Keystone Passage capitalizes on prior African Rock Art research, giving students exposure to black African heritage and science in a unique literary way. In the first book of the series, characters are four young black children who, during a visit to their grandmother one summer, unexpectedly find themselves transported through time and space to ancient and modern-day Africa where they interact with native people. They must use their historical and scientific knowledge to return to their grandmother’s house. Presenting themes in science through fictional storytelling allows for easier grasp of complex topics.

Additional information about this book series can be found at keystonepassage.com.

These examples are some of the various instructional tools developed for the curriculum that can engage student learners, support standards in science education, and provide increased visibility of African-American people and their cultural heritage resources.

Considerations and Key Insights

What are the benefits of having a culturally representative STEM curriculum?

Building more culturally representative curricula is a major area of opportunity in STEM.  The outcomes can be mutually beneficial for science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and for student learners. African-American representation provides accurate historical context and gives students of color positive images of themselves, helping them to find STEM education more relatable, more accessible and more achievable as career options.

There are two key considerations to be made in implementing this type of project at an undergraduate institution:

  1. This curriculum is being created and piloted at Howard University, a historically black university environment that aligns with the broader goals of the research: to invest in the development of black scholars and to serve communities of color. There is potential for this work to expand beyond Howard to other HBCUs and to predominantly white institutions. It is critical, however, that public interest and cultural visibility be priorities for the institutions at which the curriculum is being taught and implemented.
  2. The purpose of building a culturally representative curriculum is to emphasize the black heritage resources that are a meaningful part of the history of STEM and which haven’t been given adequate credit or acknowledgment in Western education. It is important that black contributions and resources be reflected in instruction in a contextual way. This sentiment can be applied across other ethnic groups as well. Meaningfully embedding black representation in STEM is an intentional practice that elevates the value of African-American heritage groups and hopefully influences increased visibility of all ethnic minorities in the future.

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