Diversity is vital for the pursuit of knowledge in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), yet many STEM fields lack gender, ethnic, and disability diversity.  One of the places of attrition is in post-secondary education: only 40% of students who intend to major in a STEM discipline obtain a degree in a STEM discipline. Students who leave STEM are often those already underrepresented in the fields. So what does that mean for STEM faculty who teach undergraduates? What can we do to help reduce attrition and increase diversity in our field?
One very important consideration is stereotype threat and its impact on diversity. In a nut-shell, stereotype threat exists in any context that puts one at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. Common identity categories that face negative stereotyping include race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Stereotype threat can negatively impact any individual if a situation emphasizes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance.
For example, when researchers subtly primed students to consider race before taking a standardized test, black students performed more poorly than white students. In another study, when athletic ability was emphasized, white students underperformed in golf skills compared to black students. What is disconcerting is that the long-term effects of stereotype threat go beyond immediate performance. Students’ perceived value of a discipline, their sense of belonging, and even their choice of major can be impacted by an incident of stereotype threat. These long-term effects of stereotype threat may contribute to the lack of diversity in STEM disciplines. So how do we reduce stereotype threats for students?
To answer this question we will first need to understand what triggers stereotype threat. Many times students experience stereotype threat not as the result of intentional actions by their peers or instructors but as an effect of implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes that may impact an individual’s actions or decisions.
These biases are not something we can easily identify, nor do they typically align with our conscious beliefs and attitudes about race, gender, etc. As hard as it is to admit, we all have implicit bias. And we, as instructors and/or researchers who mentor students, may have acted in ways that cause students to experience stereotype threat.
At this point you may be thinking ‘but I don’t have any implicit biases’ or ‘I have never made a student feel a stereotype threat, and this is a natural response. I have found a good way to understand the idea of implicit bias and stereotype threat is to consider the following questions:
- What experiences have you had that led to the beliefs you have about yourself and your capabilities as a student and a professional?
- How have different people/experiences/messages/cultural ideas throughout your life influenced these beliefs?
- What are some of the stereotypes or labels that you or others have made about you?
When asking graduate students in STEM to respond to some of these questions, particularly the third question, they have given honest and eye-opening responses. International TAs feel labeled by their students as English language learners and not ‘smart’, Indian students perceive they need to be the best performers in class, and female graduate students feel they need to outperform their male counterparts just to ‘prove’ they can cut it in graduate school. While some marginalized students persist, many students do not.
Thus, we need to make an effort, particularly in STEM, to reduce stereotype threat for our students, demonstrate the value of diversity, and help improve diversity in our disciplines. I think Adrienne Rich’s quote sums up the impact implicit bias has on students:
When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. – Adrienne Rich
We don’t want our students to feel this way, so what can we do as instructors? I propose two main ways we can promote diversity in STEM through our teaching: A) emphasize the importance of diversity in our discipline, and B) find ways to support diverse students to learn in our courses.
Here are some ideas for EXPLICITLY EMPHASIZING THE IMPORTANCE OF DIVERSITY IN STEM:
- Discuss with students how diversity enhances education and the pursuit of science by examining the value of diverse in ideas, hypotheses, solution strategies, etc.
- Include important contributors to science who represent various ethnicities, races, and genders when discussing various topics
- Examine the diversity, or lack thereof, in your discipline (both in industry and in academia) through class discussions and course projects
- Provide students opportunities to read and reflect on issues of diversity in your discipline
There are two ways to SUPPORT DIVERSE STUDENTS IN STEM CLASSROOMS. First, we need to address or own implicit biases. We can do this by:
- Become aware of your own biases (see https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html, for the Implicit Association Test)
- Educate yourself on implicit bias and stereotype threat (resources provided at the end)
- Emphasize effort and mastery of your discipline over performance and intelligence (see some of Carol Dweck’s work on mindset: https://mindsetonline.com/)
- Learn from mistakes by addressing an implicit bias situation and reflecting on various alternative ways to handle future similar situations
- Get to know all of your students as individuals
Second, the use of inclusive teaching practices can help mitigate bias and support a diverse group of students in their learning. Here are some examples of inclusive and non-inclusive teaching strategies:
|Analogies and metaphors used to explain concepts are sports, military, or construction related.||A broad range of analogies is used.|
|All lectures use text-rich slides; all assignments involve reading text with few visuals; all study guides involve only essay-type questions.||Lectures use a mix of textual and visual representation; some assignments engage students in collaborative learning that requires discussion, evaluation of ideas, etc.|
|Under-represented minority students are all grouped together or completely separated from each other.||At least two women or members of ethnic minority groups are included in a group.|
|Instructor’s questions have a single correct answer.||Answers to questions have several correct answers, require consensus of the group, and/or require the class’s collective knowledge to be answered.|
|Instructor uses one instructional method (lecture) and exam (multiple choice).||Instructor uses a variety of learning exercises and assessment tools.|
|Grading is done without discussion or a rubric.||Grading rubrics are used and explained to students.|
In summary, diversity is vital to STEM disciplines, and we as instructors need to find ways to create inclusive classroom environments and promote diversity in our teaching. It is also important to understand that addressing issues related to diversity can be challenging and uncomfortable, and you will likely make mistakes on the way. However, small changes to the way we interact with students and design our courses could be the difference in a student’s choice to major in our discipline and pursue a career in science, math, or engineering. And that’s worth it.
Some great resources to get you started in addressing diversity in your STEM classroom:
Handelsman, J., Ebert-May, D., Beichner, R., Bruns, P., Chang, A., DeHaan, R., & Wood, W. B. (2004). Scientific teaching. Science, 304(5670), 521-522.
Implicit bias & stereotype threat
 For details on scientific workforce diversity, see: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/diversity-in-science/topic/ and http://handelsmanlab.sites.yale.edu/sites/default/files/Scientific%20Teaching.pdf
 Waldrop, M. Mitchell (2015-07-16). “Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right”. Nature. 523 (7560): 272–274. doi:10.1038/523272a.
 Stone, J., Lynch, C. I., Sjomeling, M., & Darley, J. M. (1999). Stereotype threat effects on black and white athletic performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1213-1227.