STEM PUSH Network Tests Approach to Build Staff Capacity to Reflect Upon and Disrupt Racism in STEM

By Talia Stol

In order to change and disrupt systems, one must first “see” the system and one’s location within it, and then be able to openly discuss how systems operate to benefit some at the expense of others.

That is the big thinking behind the STEM PUSH Network’s “Racism in STEM Discussion Routine” for pre-college STEM program staff.  The routine involves completing a personal reflection about positionality in STEM, listening to a podcast, and participating in a discussion about the podcast’s themes.

The idea was developed by a group of Network partners, inspired by an activity designed by Dr. Odaelys Walwyn-Pollard and Dr. Disan Davis of RockEDU’s JUMPSTART and Summer Science Research Programs. Last summer, their high school-age students listened to a podcast episode entitled “The Liberation of RNA” and discussed their reactions with each other. The open, meaningful, community-building conversations that emerged among this racially and economically diverse group of students prompted other program leaders to think about how they could facilitate similarly robust conversations among the educational staff (instructors, mentors, faculty members) in their programs.

Originally featured on an episode of The Story Collider and subsequently broadcast by WYNC Studios’ Radiolab, the podcast offers a powerful account of Yale University Assistant Professor Brandon Obgunu’s experiences with racism in life and in science. Obgunu, who is Black, takes listeners on his unique journey as he navigates his career in science, his work with RNA, and his field’s connection to racist ideologies that underpin much of Western biology. The podcast offers a catalyst for understanding how the science presented in textbooks is complicated by, and must be reconciled with, its historical and cultural context. 

“Science is a human endeavor,” said Natasha Smith-Walker of Project Exploration in Chicago. She and other program leaders who developed the routine spent time unpacking the idea that despite the common message that science is “objective,” the practice of science – the questions that are asked, what is considered worthy of study, who is considered a scientist – is subject to human biases and the power dynamics of the societies in which scientific research occurs. These dynamics contribute to systemic inequities, and have implications for how young people from different backgrounds and identities may experience STEM study and professions.  Smith-Walker explained that finding ways to engage staff with these ideas is an important step in answering a more important question which is  “How do we help equip [students] to find the networks and the resources and supports to actually manage and navigate those systems and still come out on the other end and be successful?” 

Following the three core questions for improvement inquiry, the group summarized the purpose of the discussion routine that they would test in the following way: 

What specifically are we trying to accomplish? Increase staff awareness of subjectivity in STEM and links to oppressive systems so they can better support students around issues of race and racism in affirming and sustaining ways.

What changes might we introduce…? Scaffold staff reflection of positionality and racism in STEM through discussion of a thematically rich podcast.
and why? There are few opportunities for staff to engage explicitly with their STEM identity, and there is hesitance to engage with issues of race and racism with students. This routine offers a structure to normalize engaging with these topics by leveraging the social aspect of learning and the power of storytelling.

How will we know this change is an improvement?

  • Increased staff awareness of racist systems in STEM and their position within systems.
  • Staff feel more prepared to talk about race and racism in STEM.
  • Staff make connections between systems and their work with students.

Six STEM PUSH partner programs tried the discussion routine this summer.
For some, this was the first attempt to actively engage staff in reflecting on their positionality in STEM and the implications of racism in science for their students; for others, this was a new component of an established programmatic focus on social justice. The programs engaged in a Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle to intentionally document variation in implementation contexts, collect practical data on the process and results, and consolidate the learning that occurs. They will then adapt the routine based on the first round of insights so that a new group of programs can test it again.

While the Network hopes this change will have an impact, all partners involved recognize that this is not a one-and-done activity; rather, implementing this routine compels programs to think about what is happening on either end of the discussion – how this is integrated into the broader program’s design and goals, and what capacities are needed to further develop the human and organizational resources to support an ongoing commitment to broadening participation for Black and Brown students.  This discussion routine is one test of change that seeks to facilitate conversations within programs that are both critical and empowering, supporting participants to “see” the system but also the agency and resources they can bring to bear to support more equitable outcomes.

You can listen to the full podcast here. Reach out to the STEM PUSH Network if you would like to learn more about the Racism in STEM Discussion Routine. Stay tuned to see what STEM PUSH Network members learned from their first round of implementation. 

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