November 2021 | Editorial
Broadening Participation in Chemistry
By Pamela Leggett-Robinson
|Figure 1. Pamela Leggett-Robinson as department chair at Georgia Perimeter College in 2008. Her pink lab coat was also worn with her thriving research group at Tuskegee University, where each student got to pick the color of their lab coat.|
Ever since I entered the chemistry space as an undergraduate, I have desired to see more people who looked like me.
My undergraduate journey was not a straight path. I was met with academic challenges as well as racial and gendered challenges. But it was my unbridled love for chemistry and a desire to become part of this “society” that pushed me to complete my undergraduate degree and subsequently obtain a master’s and doctorate in chemistry.
When I think back on my journey, there were few chemistry students or professors who looked like me. So much so, that when I walked into any chemistry space, I looked for a “familiar” face — that is, anyone who was Black. I didn’t care if the person was male or female, young or old, a student or professor. I simply wanted to see another Black person.
Many people may believe seeing faces that look like yours is not that important. However, for me, a historically-marginalized, first-generation student in chemistry, it was vitally important to feel at home in a career space most often occupied by white men.
What started out for me as a small, personal desire has manifested into a lifetime commitment to elevate, encourage, and engage other historically-marginalized students in chemistry. For over 25 years, I have worked tirelessly to broaden the participation of historically- and presently-marginalized students in chemistry through teaching, research, service, and now consulting work. Although my strategies have changed a bit, my focus remains to embrace and encourage all people in the chemistry space.
In thinking of the past year from a professional perspective, I believe it has shed light on how some chemistry settings within the broader STEM environment serve to privilege certain social identities, while marginalizing others — thus impacting countless individuals’ ability to navigate life’s journey. Many in our profession have shifted their thinking on this topic, for which I am very glad. Yet at the same time, there are others who choose to align themselves with the status quo, and refuse to consider the cultural norms, institutional policies, and professional hierarchies that continue to work counter to broadening participation in chemistry.
What does it mean to broaden participation in chemistry?
Although disparities in chemistry cut across racial, gender, socioeconomic, and ability lines, educational disparities in chemistry tend to impact historically-marginalized groups more often than others. Black and Brown, rural, indigenous, and low socioeconomic students are filtered out of chemistry due to lack of interest, role models, and/or student funding at Title 1 schools.1,2,3,4 It is unfortunate that our education system often serves as a means to perpetuate these disparities, whether knowingly and unknowingly.
Broadening participation for groups of people historically in the margins is social equity work. It begins with understanding and accepting that all people don’t start in the same place or are not afforded the same opportunities and resources on the journey. It ends with intentional provision of space for diversity of thought, equity at the table, inclusion in the conversation, and respect for all humanity.
More specifically, broadening participation in chemistry education includes removing the deficit teaching approach—which focuses on a student’s weaknesses, and developing culturally responsive pedagogy. For instance, when class assessments are used to justify students’ academic shortcomings without addressing the shortcomings of the systems intended to serve them, deficit teaching is perpetuated. Additionally, when scientific pedagogy is not contextualized in ways that are inclusive and equitable, deficit teaching continues.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Respect (DEIR) in chemistry
This past year, discussions have surfaced regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect (DEIR). However, before we can begin to engage in thoughtful conversations around the topic, let alone try to implement these words into our professional activities, we must have a collective working definition. Below is how I define the terms during my workshops:
- Diversity: Encompassing all the ways in which people differ, as well as the specific characteristics that make one individual or group different from another.
- Equity: Ensuring each person (student or professional) has access to all resources they need to learn and thrive. It does not mean giving everyone the same resources.
- Inclusion: Creating environments in which any individual or group is welcomed to fully participate.
- Respect: The deliberate act of valuing and appreciating the differences of others through words and actions.
Chemistry is often considered a central science because it joins together so many other disciplines (i.e., physics and mathematics, biology and medicine, and earth and environmental sciences). It plays a role in our daily lives and touches every aspect of our existence, regardless of race, gender, language, age, or culture.
The beauty of being a central science is the multiplicity of ways it can be used to integrate with other disciplines while maintaining its fundamental characteristics. Chemistry is truly inclusive and equitable; it consistently seeks ways to interact with other STEM disciplines to enrich the quality of life by providing new solutions to numerous society problems in health, materials, food, and energy. This same beauty can be found in the human interactions of those occupying the education, research, teaching, or professional space where chemistry is at the center.
Embracing and promoting diversity in all its forms, not only to create a more inclusive environment for the practice of chemistry, but also to provide fair and just outcomes for all to achieve their full potential is the message of ACS and AACT as established in the ACS Strategic Plan. Inclusion of and respect for people of all backgrounds, perspectives, experiences, and ideas will lead to superior solutions to world challenges and advance chemistry as a global, multidisciplinary science. Intentionality of inclusive and equitable behaviors in our daily interactions can, and will, lead to the next generation of global leaders, educators, and researchers.
Social equity work
|Figure 2. Pamela Leggett-Robinson (right) working with her organic chemistry students at Georgia Perimeter College.|
Many of today’s domestic and global problems require chemists who are equipped with the interdisciplinary knowledge, skills, and tools, as well as the ability to think creatively in a global environment. To solve these problems, a diverse group of chemists must be in the room. Furthermore, to have a diverse group of chemists in the room, social justice must be at play — meaning there must be equitable opportunities for all.
As chemistry educators, it is our responsibility to actively engage in social equity work; that is, to work toward the dismantling of barriers that intentionally limit the potential of our students. It is also our responsibility to teach our students to do the same. Allowing behaviors in our classroom that continue to undervalue, discredit, or dismiss current and historical contributions of others, sends a message to our students that diversity, equity, inclusivity, and respect are mere words without action. More importantly, it makes us complicit in the system that perpetuates exclusion.
To that end, I’m excited to be part of AACT’s new culturally-responsive working group that is focused on social equity work through the creation of teacher resources that engage and include all students. These resources will be intentionally designed to highlight the contributions of all chemists, so that students are able to see themselves in the space of science. Providing professional development opportunities for teachers is also at the forefront of this working group. My colleagues and I hope these professional development opportunities will provide educators with new knowledge, practical and applicable skills, and a community that supports a culturally-relevant curriculum and engages learners from all backgrounds.
Let’s extend the invitation
DEIR is here to stay. The ways in which we think about DEIR and put it into action will affect who ultimately makes up the chemistry profession in the decades to come. Regardless of policies, strategic plans, or educational pedagogy, the fact remains that in order to solve both domestic and global problems, we need to produce diverse teams and create space for diversity of thoughts, suggestions, voices, and perspectives. We must not only allow diversity into the room, we must also intentionally include our diverse colleagues in the conversation, value their opinion, and give them a vote. This is the only way we, as chemists, can truly operate from the DEIR space and make significant strides to broaden participation in chemistry.
I look forward to a time when broadening participation in chemistry is no longer a choice, but rather, simply a way of life. However, until that time comes, I will continue to do my part of broadening participation by working with organizations and institutions to develop and optimize STEM programs to address the multi-faceted obstacles that confront both historically- and presently-marginalized groups in STEM environments.
As part of the 2021-2022 AACT Governing Board, I’m encouraged by the stories of K-12 teachers who are working to accomplish these goals in their classrooms every day. In this issue of Chemistry Solutions, outstanding teachers and chemistry educators have again shared thoughtful ideas, experiences, and strategies to benefit the community:
- Ellen Spencer shares tips and tricks for integrating Jamboard as an instructional tool, for teaching both in-person and remotely.
- The president of the Science History Museum, David Allen Cole, encourages teachers to incorporate historical material into their lesson plans, and shares about a new artifact- and image-driven story available from the museum on a digital platform.
- A chemistry teacher shares about his successful experience taking students to learn at a local wastewater treatment plant in an effort to help them understand the connections between various fields of study.
- Finally, two Yale Ph.D. students share about an acid-base puzzle lab activity they developed as part of an outreach program to help high school students understand connections between molecular structure and color.
Additionally, I’d like to encourage teachers to view a recording of a workshop facilitated by Dr. Sibrina Collins, “Superhero Science, Equity, and Storytelling in Chemistry Education,” in collaboration with the GA Section of the American Chemical Society. In her presentation, she discusses equity in STEM disciplines and offers ideas for teachers to engage their students.
I encourage you to contribute to the chemistry education community, whether it be through an article, webinar, teaching resource, or simply sharing about AACT with a colleague. Continuing to build this great community with a diverse membership, and having contributions from a wide variety of voices and perspectives are important goals. However, we must be sure that in being “inclusive,” we do not exclude voices that are currently in the room. Let’s work together to ensure DEIR is not the responsibility of just one or two groups, and that broadening participation in chemistry means just that… broadening participation for ALL.
- Ladson-Billings, G. It doesn’t add up: African American students’ mathematics achievement. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. 1997, 28(6), 697-708. doi: 102307/749638.
- Leggett-Robinson, P.; Lester, C.; Villa, B.; Davis, N. Increasing College Opportunity in STEM Education through High School Visitation Day at the Two-Year College. Transactions on Techniques in STEM Education. 2017, Vol. 2, No. 4, July/September 2017, pp 20-27.
- Oberoi, S. The Economic Impact of Early Exposure to STEM Education. 2016. https://www.ced.org/blog/entry/the-economic-impact-of-early-exposure-to-stem-education (accessed Oct 25, 2021).
- Scott-Johnson, P.; Leggett-Robinson, P. A Journey Worth Traveling: Mentoring and Role Models Matter. In Overcoming Barriers for Women of Color in STEM Fields: Emerging Research and Opportunities; Leggett-Robinson, P., Villa, B. Eds.; IGI Global, 2020; pp 116-140. http://doi:10.4018/978-1-7998-4858-5.ch006.
(article cover) melitas/Bigstock.com