September 2021 | Editorial
Culturally Responsive Teaching in Chemistry
By Greta Glugoski-Sharp
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools and forced both teachers and students online to engage in distance learning, it was a big adjustment for many. In my experience, I saw chemistry teachers all over the world taking this new situation seriously, and doing their best to continue to provide meaningful and valuable learning experiences for students. Teachers invested much time and energy in developing best practices for distance learning, and moved forward the best that they could, given the strenuous and unpredictable situation.
Ongoing support from AACT
Best of ChemEd 2021
Did you miss this summer’s sessions? Check out these free recorded webinars!
George R Hague, Jr. AP Chemistry Symposium
From the beginning of the pandemic, AACT provided support to teachers. Our organization made the contents of our website, including its extensive library of teaching resources, available at no cost so that teachers could access them when they needed them most. This content included lesson plans, labs, demos, simulations, animations, and videos. Even the webinar archive was open for access, while live webinars continued to be offered regularly at no cost. Even more impressive was that teachers continued to contribute in meaningful ways by sharing teaching resources, writing articles, and presenting webinars. In response to the cancelation of many in-person science conferences, AACT even hosted an eight-part Virtual Summer Symposium in July 2020 that showcased many top chemistry educators who shared their successes and ideas.
More than a year later, we teachers are still facing many challenges with the ongoing pandemic. In July 2021, together with educator committees working on ChemEd 2023 (to be held at the University of Guelph) and ChemEd 2025 (Colorado School of Mines), AACT helped to organize the Best of ChemEd 2021, a free, three-day virtual symposium. Many thanks to all the amazing teachers who shared new strategies and approaches for our diverse learners, as well as insights about various digital tools that can be used to enhance the teaching of chemistry. If you were unable to attend, be sure to check out the recorded sessions, available in the webinar archive.
Where we can do more
The COVID-19 pandemic has, among many things, brought to our attention the many inequalities affecting our students and their home life, as well as racial injustices more broadly. As we head back to our classrooms, our emergence from this pandemic is giving us the opportunity for reflection and intentional action in order to establish equity in our classes. Now more than ever, the field of education is buzzing with talk of teachers being more culturally responsive … but what does this mean in practice, and how important is it in terms of equity in our classrooms?
As a Latina and chemistry educator, I understand the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Additionally, like many of my peers, I recognize the need to increase the number of underrepresented students interested in chemistry. I believe that experiences which can spark an interest in STEM are extremely important, and that mindful lesson planning is needed to promote greater cultural responsiveness and improved STEM career expectations. Based on what I’ve seen and read, students from diverse backgrounds, particularly Black and Latino students along with other racial minorities, are underrepresented and poorly served within the scientific community. As chemistry educators, we need to stop this cycle by promoting and incorporating culturally responsive methods for delivering our lessons. Studies have shown that culturally responsive teaching can help increase student achievement and engagement, support positive ethnic-racial identities for students of color, reduce the achievement gaps, and empower students as agents of social change1.
Cultural responsiveness in the chemistry classroom is a powerful approach that can allow teachers to improve engagement and equity in their classrooms, and bridge the cultural divide that sometimes exists. Culturally responsive teaching recognizes students’ cultural background and uses appropriate resources to empower all students to excel in the sciences. It can also work to increase student interest in pursuing careers in the health sciences, as well as interest in other disciplines in which a knowledge of chemistry is important.
Culturally responsive teaching is asking chemistry teachers to “reenvision” their classrooms — not by throwing out lessons or activities that we know work, but rather by building on successful practices already in place. The only difference is that our “new lessons” are supported by the belief that diversity, equity, and inclusion are assets for all our students.
Strategies for culturally responsive teaching include:
— Adapted from Valentina Gonzalez’s blog post on NCTE.org
So, how do we begin developing culturally responsive instructional practices and make learning more inclusive and effective for culturally and racially diverse students in our classes? To accomplish this, we need to develop classroom-level curricula that lessens the cultural disparities between educators and their students. We are fortunate that there are many chemistry educators who are doing just that, by working on developing lesson plans and writing about ways to incorporate culturally relevant teaching in the chemistry curriculum.
Recently, Dr. Sibrina Collins, Professor of Chemistry at Lawrence Technological University, published an article in Nature Chemistry titled, “The Importance of Storytelling in Chemical Education,” about using the powerful tool of storytelling to help address equity in the chemical sciences. In the article, Collins shares the observation that when she was in school, she rarely saw images of black chemists in textbooks or anywhere else throughout the chemistry curriculum. An important goal for her, once she became a chemistry professor, was to change that in her classroom.
Collins also wants to incorporate storytelling to broaden the image of a chemist for all the students enrolled in her courses. She explains that chemists can tell very compelling stories using the molecules or systems that we choose to investigate; so why not tell the stories of the chemists behind the compounds? To illustrate her point, she shares the story of a young African American chemist named Alice Augusta Ball who developed the first viable treatment for leprosy, and who was both the first African American and also the first woman to become a chemistry instructor at the College of Hawaii (now the University of Hawaii). Leprosy at that time was a serious public health crisis. The challenges in developing therapeutics to treat it were not to dissimilar to the current issues we faced with the COVID-19 virus. In her article, Collins goes on to say how impactful Ball’s story can be to chemistry students, particularly women and students of color, and can also strengthen students’ racial and ethnic identities.
In 2018 Collins and her colleague, LaVetta Appleby, used fictional storytelling to engage the next generation of chemistry students with an activity they published in the Journal of Chemical Education, titled “Black Panther, Vibranium, and the Periodic Table.” In this activity, they describe how the movie “Black Panther” provides a unique opportunity for students to think critically about the arrangement of the periodic table. The fictional African nation Wakanda, led by King T’Challa, has a thriving STEM economy based on the production and use of “vibranium,” an element with amazing chemical and physical properties. The Black Panther movie tells a very compelling story about women and scientists of color developing creative and innovative solutions to solve societal challenges within chemistry — an important narrative to include within chemistry education, explains Collins. A notable quote from the her article was, “Imagine a chemistry curriculum that is totally inclusive and celebrates the intellectual achievements of ALL!”
As you, my fellow chemistry teachers, begin a new school year, I hope that you’ll keep these strategies in mind, and put students at the center of your instruction, giving each one an equitable education experience. As chemistry educators, I feel that we have a responsibility to create a classroom culture of inclusion, collaboration, and cultural sensitivity.
In this issue of Chemistry Solutions, I’m excited to share a variety of valuable content from other great chemistry teachers:
- Learn about an author’s journey of personal and professional growth as she gained insights into the importance of leadership in education.
- Follow along as a teacher recaps her use of a hands-on inquiry activity to assess students’ content knowledge. You can also access the great lab activity for use in your own classroom!
- Read about one veteran chemistry teacher’s 25-year experience with the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad Program (USNCO). If you’ve ever thought about getting yourself or your students involved, now is your chance to learn more!
- Finally, 2021 ACS Conant Award winner Shea Wickelson shares stories and ideas from her experience teaching de-tracked high school chemistry.
As your 2021 AACT President, I sincerely want to share my best wishes for a successful and healthy school year ahead to each and every one of my fellow educators.
President, AACT 2021–2022
- Griner, Angela Christine; Stewart, Martha Lue. Addressing the Achievement Gap and Disproportionality Through the Use of Culturally Responsive Teaching Practices. Urban Education, July 2013, 48(4), 585–621.
(article cover) VSLP/Bigstockphoto.com