Rethinking Science Education To Be More Inclusive : Short Wave Some of the most prestigious scientists in history advanced racist and eugenicist views. But why is that rarely mentioned in textbooks? Today on the show, we speak with science educators building an anti-racist perspective into their curriculum and seeking to make the science classroom more inclusive.
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Want To Dismantle Racism In Science? Start In The Classroom

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Want To Dismantle Racism In Science? Start In The Classroom

Want To Dismantle Racism In Science? Start In The Classroom

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Hey, everybody. Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE reporter Emily Kwong. Hey, Kwong.


SOFIA: So a couple of months ago, we got an email from scientist Esther Odekunle in London, who, from the time she was a kid, was fascinated by snails.

ESTHER ODEKUNLE: So I tended to just try and find them in my playground in school and just observe them, observe how they moved. And I was super fascinated - like, the slime that they left behind when they were moving. So that was kind of, like...

SOFIA: I mean, observing small and slimy things sounds like classic scientist behavior to me, Kwong.

KWONG: Absolutely.

ODEKUNLE: It's weird because I - so I felt like I belonged in science pretty early on, actually, as a kid. But when I realized the lack of diverse representation in science as I was progressing in education, I actually became less confident that I belonged in science.

KWONG: In part because science has been dominated by white men. And as a Black woman, Esther saw a few people who looked like her in her textbooks. You have Francis Crick and James Watson, who are credited with discerning the structure of DNA. You have Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. And this is how science is traditionally taught, right? You could call this the great-men-of-science approach to education.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, you kind of just memorized what these scientists did, but not so much who they were or what they believed.

KWONG: Exactly. And in college, she started digging into the personal histories of these scientists and was really disturbed by what she found. Carl Linnaeus, classified organisms, but he also classified people by skin color in really racist ways.

SOFIA: Yeah.

KWONG: And Watson and Crick, they've espoused racist and eugenicist views. And reading all of this, it was such a betrayal to her.

ODEKUNLE: Your heart just drops completely. And it's just that realization that someone that you looked up to for their brilliance would have thought that you were, essentially, you know, not really valuable as a human being.

KWONG: Esther did become a scientist. She makes antibodies now and wrote to us with this really powerful question. She asked, what do you do with the racist parts of science history when you're teaching science?

SOFIA: Yeah. The subject line was, does genius absolve racism?

KWONG: And there's some science teachers out there who would say, no...


KWONG: ...We are going to teach science and its full history. And we will be talking to some of those teachers today.

SOFIA: So today on the show - rethinking science education. If you're a science teacher or a science student, or if you ever just took a science class, this one's for you.


SOFIA: All right. Today on the show, we're unspooling what's not working in science education around representation and racism and how to teach science in a more inclusive way, an idea from listener and scientist Esther Odekunle.

KWONG: Yes. So thanks to Esther, we went looking for K-12 teachers teaching at the intersection of science and racial justice at all grade levels. And I want to start with Letimicia Fears. She's a postdoctoral fellow in the Collaborative for STEM Education and Outreach at Vanderbilt.


KWONG: She's a Black scientist helping out in science classrooms in Tennessee. And among fifth graders at this one particular school, she is a total rock star. She'll walk into a classroom, and they'll be like...

LETIMICIA FEARS: Ms. Fears is here, Dr. Fears. Oh.


FEARS: Yeah, it's me. It's me, everyone, you know? No autographs today.


ODEKUNLE: We lit up each other's world, I will say that.

KWONG: Letimicia drops into fifth, seventh and eighth grade science classrooms like a real-life Ms. Frizzle, OK? I'm not kidding you.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: She wheels this cart between classes, clattering with beakers and different, very interesting looking chemicals. And students, they're so intrigued, they run up to her and are like...

FEARS: Are you coming to my class? And where are you going, you know? - just all that stuff.

KWONG: And then, when she's in the classroom, Letimicia doesn't just help them run experiments. She'll also delve into the ethics of designing an experiment.


KWONG: She'll talk about how wrong the Tuskegee study was, which is when scientists studied syphilis in Black men and withheld treatment.

SOFIA: So she's, like, introducing bioethics to kids as an important part of the curriculum?

KWONG: Yep. Scientists are presented as very human, herself included. And her students can totally handle these conversations.

FEARS: We see what's happening with this generation with them protesting. They're speaking out. And they're not having it. (Laughter) They're not going to allow us to continue to destroy the Earth.

KWONG: And her point is that if science teachers can tap into that compassion and that curiosity and show the way that scientists have messed up, kids might take up an interest in science.

SOFIA: I love it.

FEARS: And if we can't do that, then we are going to lose them. And I think it's harder for minority kids. They already don't see themselves as the teacher or the person that's doing the science. So that already kind of puts up a block of, well, that's just what the old, white men with the crazy hair do.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: And so another thing Letimicia does is namedrop scientists of color as often as possible. She'll talk about astrophysicist Jedidah Isler, medical physicist Hadiyah-Nicole Green, astronauts Joseph Acaba and Jeanette Epps. She designed a paper rocket lesson around them. And this helps kids develop a mental picture of a career in STEM beyond a doctor or a dentist.

SOFIA: This is so cool because it's not just about teaching science history, right? It's also helping...

KWONG: Right.

SOFIA: ...Students see themselves as scientists.

KWONG: And for Gretchen Kraig-Turner, the next teacher I want to introduce you to...


KWONG: ...This level of engagement becomes even more important as students get older and start to, you know, get into their teenage years and develop their own opinions.

SOFIA: Their own opinions about science?

KWONG: Yeah, you know, to be critical of it.

SOFIA: Oh, yeah. That was not in my K-12 science education.

KWONG: Hers either.

GRETCHEN KRAIG-TURNER: I don't remember a lot of writing or opinions being a part of science. In fact, it was very much, I believe, taught that opinions didn't belong in science - right? - that it was supposed to be a right answer.

KWONG: Gretchen teaches at Burlington-Edison High School in Washington state. She is white. She wanted her classroom to be as inclusive as possible and to reflect the diversity of the student body. And in her first year of teaching a biotech class - this is back in 2010 - an English teacher gave her a copy of the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and was like, you should teach this to your students.

SOFIA: Oh, yeah. So the history of the HeLa cell line.


SOFIA: So Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells were used for years by scientists without her family's knowledge, cells that generated one of the most important cell lines in medical research. Her case raises so many questions about patients' rights.

KWONG: Yeah, questions raised in this book. So Gretchen got a bunch of hardcover books for her class.

KRAIG-TURNER: And we read it. And it shaped how I teach in just tremendous ways because the students responded to it so strongly. You know, they were excited - maybe not at first. You know, I still get a lot of...

KWONG: (Laughter).

KRAIG-TURNER: ...Turner, this isn't an English class, right? But they got into it.

KWONG: So into it. It is a six-week unit. It's a book in a science class. Students do cell labs while they're reading. And they journal, too, OK? So they're jotting down notes on different themes like medical apartheid, informed consent, lab science. And at the end, they write a big paper.

KRAIG-TURNER: And also, oftentimes in class, there will be students who - whose own families have experienced medical apartheid and the effects of that. And I think some of the students can see themselves in the story of the Lacks family.

KWONG: The conversations become really personal and probing.

SOFIA: Not, you know, necessarily what you'd expect in a science class.

KWONG: But exactly what Gretchen is hoping for.

KRAIG-TURNER: Well, I think what, you know, many young people ultimately want from their teachers is to be seen and to be heard. And so if the science curriculum - if they feel seen and heard through that curriculum, they're more invested.

KWONG: So when her students learn about genetic testing, Gretchen includes a film about the Innocence Project. They're a group that uses DNA testing to exonerate those who've been wrongfully imprisoned. And Gretchen has her students write poetry and songs as kind of odes to those wrongfully convicted.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: My blood, my skin, my hair all held the key to my freedom - DNA. My eyes glazed over, desperate for relief, with a pain I now understood. My hand reaches for...

KRAIG-TURNER: You know, I don't know how often you're around teenagers. But (laughter) teenagers have this just tremendous sense of justice and what is right, you know? And so those conversations are often very passionate for students. But it's also the world that they live in.

SOFIA: Wow. I mean, Kwong, there's so many things in here that are so powerful. And I know there's a lot of science teachers who listen to SHORT WAVE who might want to incorporate racial justice and history into their teaching, too. I mean, where do they look?

KWONG: Well, Gretchen and Letimicia had the same advice, which is that teachers should fill in the gaps in their own racial understanding first. Learn about the history of science or their field. And that's exactly what the last teacher I spoke with is doing. Viji Sathy is a college professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And looking critically at her own field, statistics, has been hard, painful work.

VIJI SATHY: You know, honestly, I just feel like I missed something that was really important to learn about my discipline. And I'm a little bit mad at myself for not being curious on my own to figure out the origins of things.

KWONG: And she has been startled to realize the full extent to which modern statistics draws upon the work of eugenicists like Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, Ronald Fisher. Some of the most foundational tools in STEM, like the normal distribution curve, were applied to support their racist and eugenicist theories, tools that we use today.

SATHY: But we don't really stop to think about the people who created them and why they created them.

KWONG: So Viji is trying to stop, to teach herself where these came from, but to not rush the process with some slapdash curriculum. She wants to incorporate these historical elements into her classes with care.

SATHY: I want to give it the space it deserves in a course and not to feel like this awkward add-on that people can optionally engage in.

KWONG: In a way that centers the students. Viji, like all the teachers I spoke with, designs her classes by asking herself, who is being left behind with this material? And how can I bring them along? That's what can be gained from an inclusive and anti-racist science education.

SATHY: I think all of us in our minds have been in or have heard of a course where the professor says, look to the left, look to the right. One of you won't be here at the end of this time or, you know, something horrible that should not ever be uttered in a classroom.


SATHY: I say, look to your left, look to your right. Like, I want you all to stay. I want you all to love my field as much as I love my field because there's so many interesting things you could do with it. And we really could use your wonderful mind in our discipline. We could use your perspective and the things that you bring.

SOFIA: So basically, to change science, we have to change how we teach science.

KWONG: Yeah. To fix the lab, you got to fix the classroom.


KWONG: Special thanks to Yowei Shaw for contributing reporting to this episode and to Esther Odekunle for pitching this idea. This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, fact-checked by Ariela Zebede and edited by Viet Le.

SOFIA: We're back tomorrow with more SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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