SAGE Musings: Black, Brown, and Bruised in STEM

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College

published Oct 15, 2021 1:43pm

Earlier this year I read Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation, by Ebony Omotola McGee, Ph.D., and I thought I'd share my thoughts with all of you. Spoiler alert: I recommend it highly!!

The first several chapters (1-4) summarize the underrepresentation of BIPOC humans in STEM, and the problems inherent in that. There was one line that particularly caught my attention: "Asking URM students to continually be resilient and rise above racist policies, practices, and actions over and over again without appropriate supports is in actuality a form of oppression, with outcomes that can be deleterious and at worst deadly" (p. 60).

Chapter 5 highlights what approaches have been successful at broadening participation in STEM, in what settings. The vast majority of this chapter is about things that individual faculty members, or small groups of faculty members, can do. For example:

Create a welcoming environment

  • Start or expand a STEM learning center
  • Offer workshops or seminars in study skills, exploring careers, test preparation (e.g. prep for the GRE at 4 year colleges/universities)
  • Emphasize career counseling and awareness and financial support
  • Increase the quantity and quality of academic advising

I would add that it is worth examining classrooms and other academic spaces to see what implied messages they send about who "belongs" in STEM. Can your students "see themselves" in your STEM program spaces?

Reform curriculum and instruction

  • Utilize active learning, with a particular focus on teamwork and real world problems -- e.g., through approaches such as collaborative problem-solving or service learning. Of course, how active learning strategies are implemented matters, too. Here's a short summary of tips on inclusive teaching through active learning.
  • Expand the instructional focus on establishing prior knowledge and understanding the context. I've heard this idea in conversations about high-context learning, teaching with an asset model / mindset, students as funds of knowledge, and traditional / Indigenous ecological knowledge. All of these approaches share a fundamental belief that students bring valuable prior knowledge and understanding to their learning, and everyone benefits when we genuinely acknowledge and respect that.

Be an effective mentor

Effective mentoring supports students' STEM identities AND their social identities. It supports students in bringing their whole selves into STEM and focuses holistically on students' STEM growth. "Mentors" who do not understand and support a student's research interests undermine the student's success. Effective mentoring is one of the most important factors in STEM degree completion for students who belong to historically marginalized populations. However, effective mentoring is necessary but not sufficient: mentoring works best when it is one of many supports.

There is a checklist for the characteristics of effective mentoring on p. 109.

Develop programs for STEM students of color 

The underrepresentation of BIPOC students is not a problem with the students; it's a problem with our institutions and the systems within the institutions. Therefore, this isn't a problem that we will fix by "fixing" the students. There is nothing wrong with the students. BIPOC humans in STEM exist in systems that are toxic for them. It is that reality that necessitates additional support systems for BIPOC students in STEM. Some of the support systems that have been successful are:

  • Pre-first year bridge programs. These ease the transition to college, normalizing the challenges that come with this transition and also making explicit what is sometimes called the "hidden curriculum." Although this isn't in the book, I would add that 2YC-4YCU bridge programs have been similarly successful for historically marginalized students. Beyond the explicit supports they provide, bridge programs have the added benefit that they create a cohort, a community of students making the transition together. That cohort helps to foster a sense of belonging.
  • Cohort programs that incorporate a suite of support strategies, such as monitoring academic progress, advising and mentoring, study groups, tutoring, joining faculty-led collaborative STEM research teams, and/or internships. The community aspect of cohort programs is essential, too - it formalizes support from "sympathetic, knowledgeable, and sometimes powerful people." That kind of support is, unfortunately, all too rare for far too many students in STEM.

Work at the institutional level

Chapter 6 is about what institutions can do to transform their structures and systems to become welcoming, inclusive, and supportive. It is as comprehensive as chapter 5, but may not be relevant for all faculty. On the other hand, if you are serving on institution-level committees related to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion, this chapter is a great resource.


All in all, this book is well worth reading, with many practical, actionable strategies for STEM faculty.

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