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Develop Cultural Competency

Science and academia have a culture all their own, regardless of the background(s) of people in the community. In its classic form, this culture is very focused on the individual and compartmentalized into the "silos" of separate disciplines. It is also more often competitive than collaborative. This kind of individuated environment can be off-putting or at least very challenging for students who come from cultures that value a more collective or integrated worldview. Many students from under-represented groups come from such a background (Ibarra, 2001). Developing an academic culture that can adapt to students of different types and temperaments must be a priority if we wish to engage more diverse students and create a more diverse geoscience workforce.

The Earth and environmental sciences are integrative - requiring inputs from a number of different disciplines to solve large, important questions. There are also many opportunities for community-based projects and service learning. These kinds of "high-context" experiences can help students see how they can fit into the world of the geosciences.

Developing faculty self-awareness of their personal culture and biases, and the impact these have on their own careers and teaching is an important part of changing this culture. Faculty members who are more aware of their own cultural beliefs and assumptions can begin to understand how to engage with students who don't share the same cultural attitudes. Below are two strategies for exploring the underlying effects of culture and bias.

Construct a Culture and Teaching Autobiography

Our own cultural experiences form the lens through which we view the world around us. In today's diverse world of higher education, understanding how this affects interaction with students who do not share that same cultural context is very important. Successfully engaging students in geoscience courses and programs requires meeting them where they are and helping them see how Earth and environmental science is relevant to their lives.

One way of bringing our cultural assumptions into the light is by creating a cultural and teaching autobiography. Alicia Chavez (University of New Mexico) has developed a framework for reflecting (Acrobat (PDF) 626kB Mar18 14) on how the cultural context in which we were raised manifests itself in our psychological makeup and how that impacts the way we teach and interact with students. Chavez's process for developing an autobiography includes:

  • Describe your cultural identity in general. (Origins, history, family names...)
  • Choose 3-5 major values or traits. For each value or trait:
    • Describe it.
    • Discuss the assumptions and beliefs that underlie it.
    • How does it manifest itself in your life and behaviors?
    • How does it manifest in your teaching and the way you interpret, judge, design for, and interact with students?
    • How is it helpful to your effectiveness as an educator? How is it limiting?
  • Analyze how this suite of values and traits affects your view of and work with students, especially those who have different cultural values than your own.
  • Discuss the implications of this self-evaluation. How can you maximize your cultural strengths and minimize your cultural limitations in your teaching? How can you make the most of the cultural perspectives of your students?
  • Summarize what you've learned in the process of reflection and how it affects your plans for growth as an educator.
This is a valuable undertaking for individual faculty but could have even broader impacts as part of a department-wide effort to understand itself better.

Test for Implicit Bias

Another set of tools to help individuals assess their cultural blind spots are the tests run by Project Implicit. The Implicit Associate Tests (IATs) aim to investigate thoughts and feelings that exist outside of conscious awareness or conscious control. These implicit biases do not necessarily constitute prejudice, but they can be predictive of behavior in the absence of conscious efforts to be egalitarian.

On the website there are tests probing biases on a number of different axes, including:

  • Skin Tone: Assesses unconscious bias regarding lighter vs darker skin tone
  • Gender - Science: Assesses unconscious bias regarding women in the sciences vs the liberal arts
  • Gender - Career: Assesses unconscious bias regarding traditional gender roles
  • Race: Assesses unconscious preferences regarding blacks and whites
  • Sexuality (Gay-Straight): Assesses unconscious bias regarding homosexual vs heterosexual

From the Project Implicit website:

The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). The main idea is that making a response is easier when closely related items share the same response key.

When doing an IAT you are asked to quickly sort words into that are on the left and right hand side of the computer screen by pressing the "e" key if the word belongs to the category on the left and the "i" key if the word belongs to the category on the right.

...We would say that one has an implicit preference for thin people relative to fat people if they are faster to categorize words when Thin People and Good share a response key and Fat People and Bad share a response key, relative to the reverse.

Again, these tests probe biases that exist without the conscious direction of the individual and may even run counter to strongly held conscious beliefs. Discovering this can be an uncomfortable experience and care should be taken even when performing a test for yourself. But knowing about potential biases can lead to conscious actions to counteract those biases and even change them. (Gregg et al., 2006)


Chávez, A.F. (2013) Culture and Teaching Autobiographies (Acrobat (PDF) 626kB Mar18 14). University of New Mexico.

Gregg, A.P., B. Seibt, and M.R. Banaji (2006). Easier done than undone: Asymmetry in the malleability of implicit preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 1-20.

Ibarra, R.A. (2001). Beyond Affirmative Action: Reframing the Context of Higher Education, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. 323 pages.

Apple, J., J. Lemus, and S. Semken (Eds) (2014). Teaching Geoscience in the Context of Culture and Place, Journal of Geoscience Education. v64, n1. February 2014 Theme Issue.

Weissmann, G.S. (2014). Supporting Students in Geosciences. Presentation at InTeGrate workshop Broadening Access to the Earth and Environmental Sciences. February 23-25, 2014. Arizona State University. Tempe, AZ.