What Black Women Are Trying to Teach Us: Transforming Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work in K-12 STEM Education Research, Practice, and Policy

Terrell Morton, Preparing Future Faculty Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Missouri

Terrell MortonOn October 16th, 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation at the University of Missouri by Dr. Ashley Woodson, Assistant Professor in Social Studies Education. Dr. Woodson’s presentation, “Same Script, Different Cast?: The Civic Case Against STEM Superheroes” was part of the Sandra K. Abell Conversations about College Science Teaching lecture series. Dr. Woodson brought to the audience’s attention a parallel between K-16 social studies and STEM education involving the use of representation to discuss racial diversity, equity, and inclusion. Utilizing the iconic song, Same Script Different Cast recorded by Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox, Dr. Woodson compared the messaging in the song to what she is noticing in K-16 STEM education—Whitney Houston, the previous partner of said individual warning Deborah Cox, the current partner of said individual, of his devious and duplicitous nature. Her observation was that as K-16 STEM education seeks to diversify its approaches to be more inclusive of racialized students, these fields are falling prey to the same trap that has possessed K-12 social studies education since the multicultural movement of the 1970s. That trap being the failed promises and missed opportunities of using representation as the tool for building inclusion or promoting equity. In this presentation, Dr. Woodson embodied the voice and messaging of Whitney Houston warning us STEM educators (Deborah Cox) of the impending threats of using representation as a sole tool or strategy.

Since that presentation, this notion of representation as a tool for promoting and supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion work has been at the forefront of my mind. As a Black male scholar whose research focuses on identity expression as it informs the retention and matriculation of Black women in STEM, I could not help but think about the ways in which representation is or becomes the de facto construct investigated within STEM education research or presented as the solution for promoting student engagement and continued participation. It is all too common to hear scholars, practitioners, and policymakers discuss ways in which we can increase the representation of diverse populations in STEM, cite statistics on the changes in representation of specific identity groups by STEM disciplines as evidence for diversity and inclusion success, or use role-models in STEM fields as a way to entice and attract racialized students by showing them that “they too can make it.”

Many of these conversations, projects, pedagogical practices, or policies are based in mindsets grounded in the mantras of “STEM for All” and the “Need for More STEM” because of the United States’ desire to increase STEM participation as a way to maintain its global, economic position and power. Others are presented from a more altruistic perspective but are implemented in ways that do not address the structural or institutional inequities of STEM education that are socially, culturally, politically, and historically defined. Very few actually start with the mindset of and attempt to address and transform these structural inequities as a way to foster diversity and inclusion in STEM. And so, what we end up finding in STEM education research, policy, and practice, are surface-level outcomes and changes like the idea of using representation to promote and encourage racialized and minoritized students’ persistence in STEM.

I cannot help but chuckle as I think about how the impetus for change regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion STEM education work is often placed on the individual—as we use terms like “persistence” and “resilience”—and not so much on the policies, norms, and practices of the environment, system, and structure that create and perpetuate oppression. As a larger field, we are more interested in teaching coping mechanisms and strategies for racialized and minoritized students in STEM than we are changing the underlying culture and norms. For example, in our K-12 STEM classrooms, we tend to default to strategies such as racial spotlighting to essentialize Black people who have contributed to STEM-based innovations as motivation and encouragement for racialized students to pursue STEM (e.g., the “hidden figures” of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson). Or, we may draw on current events like the Flint Water Crisis as a “culturally relevant” exemplar for learning STEM content and practices.

We often use strategies like these in isolation and do not connect them to nor strive to push our students to think about and challenge the social-cultural-political ideologies that have led to these three phenomenal Black women being referenced as “hidden figures” with their stories just now being told, or the possibilities for why Flint, Michigan, is having a water crisis to begin with and why changes to their water infrastructure have not occurred to fix the problem. When asking K-12 educators why they do not broach conversations, discussions, and learning about race, racism, systematic oppression, the responses tend to deal with their own feelings of comfortability on these topics, or the structural limitations placed on them by state-wide testing and the need to “make the numbers” regarding their students’ academic performance and not having the time or tools to explore these conversations. This is a critique of not only our current K-12 education system, but also our teacher education preparation programs. Thus, the students, who are already vulnerable and fatigued, are forced to adapt and change while the norms and policies are maintained and sustained.

Drawing from the work of scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Anna Julia Cooper, and Sojourner Truth who foregrounded the work of Black Feminism and Intersectionality, I ask questions regarding the social-cultural-political nature of identity and the ways in which structures and systems of power and privilege operate to constrain and control identity narratives and possibilities:

  • Beyond looking at the visible morphologies and possible shared ancestries that racialized groups maintain, how is STEM education research, policy, and practice seeking to unpack and understand the social, cultural, political, and historical nature of identity and experience?
  • How is STEM education research, policy, and practice seeking opportunities to transform those structural policies, procedures, and norms to prevent further oppression?
  • How is STEM education research, policy, and practice seeking to repair and restore those who have been historically and contemporarily oppressed and suppressed because of the social-cultural-political designations, understandings, and positionings of their visible and embodied identities?
  • To what extent are we truly seeking systematic change vs. being complicit in and perpetuating systems of oppression through our research, teaching, and policies?

Drawing from the epistemological and ontological conceptualizations of Black Feminist and Intersectionality scholars, I present possible solutions and considerations for STEM education researchers and practitioners of ways to incite true change. I base my presentations on the insight and information that I have obtained from listening to the voices, needs, and experiences of Black women in STEM fields. It is my belief that by attending to their expressed needs, wants, and desires interpreted through a Black Feminist and Intersectionality lens, we can make the transformations necessary to improve and enhance STEM education for all.

1. Attend to your positionality, paradigm, or philosophical world-view. As K-12 STEM education researchers, teachers, and policymakers, the way in which we view and think about issues related to STEM education and students shapes the problems we investigate; the ways in which we attempt to address said problems; the resources, energy, and effort we put into our investigations and solutions; and how we treat the students and each other. If our perspectives are not grounded in the social, cultural, political, and historical notions of identity, power, and privilege, then our attempts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion will fail because we created solutions for a problem that we do not even understand. In her book, “So you want to talk about race,” author Ijeoma Oluo has a chapter entitled, “Check your privilege.” In this chapter, she talks about the ways in which we as individuals, no matter our racial identity, can allow the privileges we maintain as a result of our identities or social status blind us to the plights and struggles of others. For example, in addition to describing the ways in which white people may not recognize or understand the experiences of those racialized, Oluo also talks about the ways in which People of Color can too be blinded by their privilege (e.g., Males of Color having privilege over Women of Color; able-bodied individuals having privileges over those with ability challenges). The first step we can take to transform STEM education is to check our privileges and positionings and seek to recognize, understand, and affirm the lived experiences of the students we wish to support before attempting to dictate what we THINK we know is best for them.

2. Seek additional insight, resources, and support from the scholars committed to this work, and compensate them appropriately. While nowhere near enough or numerically adequate, there are scholars deeply invested in doing work to transform systems of oppression to promote the liberation and development of those racialized and minoritized both inside and outside the field of education. Seeking additional insight and support from these scholars and compensating them appropriately will help our individual and collective growth and progress. As well, it will institutionalize the need for more scholars and practitioners who do this work expanding the possibilities of the educational enterprise.

3. Take a critical-ecological perspective to your investigations and services. When approaching this work, ask these questions:

  • To what extent does society impact and influence these issues?
  • Beyond this individual student, how have the institutional structures, policies, procedures, and norms contributed to their being, understanding, and embodiment of self?
  • In proposing and enacting these solutions, practices, or research, how am I contributing to or dismantling systematic inequity to ensure a better tomorrow?
  • And in answering the questions above, to what extent am I positioning and addressing race (racism), gender (sexism), and other identities from an intersectional social-cultural-political purview and accounting for the ways in which they have historically been positioned?

4. Be creative and take risks. In thinking about new project, practices, and policies, remember that the current rules and norms that we subscribe to were CREATED as a way to afford one group status and power over the others. Just like how these rules were socially constructed, so can new possibilities that exist outside of these rules. If we approach new ideas bound by the dominant, hegemonic structures, we will fall prey to the same traps as before. In 1984, Audre Lorde reminded us that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”


Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Find additional resources on the issues of identity, equity, and justice in STEM education research and practice, in this list curated by Dr. Morton.