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A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A Dream Deferred
by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

 

My interest in teaching and science outreach crystallized with NSF GK-12 Fellowship experiences in St. Louis. I was graduate student assigned as a Resource Scientist to a nearby public high school.  I was responsible for co-designing lesson plans and delivering lessons for biology and environmental science classes.  Science Fair project came around and there was big push to get all students involved.  There was a very low participation rate, but since I was the classroom scientist, I was responsible to helping students develop science fair projects and getting them ready for the competition.

Some of the students came up with some really amazing ideas. Not only because they developed some great questions and hypotheses, but because the questions were personally relevant to them.  Do cheaper brakes stop as quickly as more expensive breaks? Will cheaper brakes wear faster than more expensive ones? Are One-touch Diabetes testers as effective as traditional blood sugar testing devices that require more blood? The first two questions were posed by one of my boys – who declared his hatred of science daily, but he loved cars. The third question was posed by one of my girls who had diabetes and had to test her ‘sugar’ many times a day. Her grandmother had diabetes, too. She wanted to enlist her granny in her project.

However, like most of the other projects proposed by my students, these projects never happened. And what was more heart-breaking was that these kids interests in science (and the science fair) was dashed and never to be rekindled again.  For kids like my students – inner-city kids from poor families (whether working-class or on welfare), average or below-average academic performance, some with behavior problems – interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) dies by 10th grade and one of three things kill the promise of opportunity.

  1. Lack of resources
  2. Benign discouragement by well-meaning adults
  3. Active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers

I witnessed all three during my time at Normandy Senior High School and the University of Missouri-St. Louis MO-STEP.

1. Lack of Resources

A majority of the projects proposed by students died because they did not have the resources to actually carry out the experiments.  Really great science projects, the ones that place in the city-county wide fairs require money to buy supplies — money that most of my students simply did not have.  Although completing a science fair project is required for a grade, the school does not provide resources to get the project done. In fact, I don’t know of any public school that does that. Do you?

But perhaps more importantly, they needed guidance. Until recently, there was too little conversation around the actual science experiences of teachers.  In struggling school districts, it is not uncommon to have a science teacher who has had no upper-level science courses. None, let alone actual research experience conducting research – which is what a science fair project is. My presence in the classroom addressed this need.  However, most students resorted to very simple projects – which brand of paper towels were absorbent or how long it will take for sugar to dissolve in cold vs. hot water – because these projects were feasible.  Plus, let’s not forget that this was about a grade, it didn’t matter if the question was creative enough, which gets to reason number 2.

2. Benign discouragement by well-meaning adults

I was teaching in the general science class and for these students the Science Fair was a hoop to jump through.  No one expected these kids to actually do a science fair project, let alone a meaningful independent project. No one. Not the teachers, not the students themselves.

Let’s go back to the great science fair projects proposed my two students. Those were excellent proposals! I loved both of these ideas.  Plus, the main objective of the program (and the reason I was there) was to engage kids in problem-based learning. Check.  The director of our grant was a very generous man. I knew if I could get the kids to develop very, well-thought out protocols, then I could get him to subsidize the cost of much of the supplies or equipment for their projects, especially ones like these. Thereby eliminating the barrier of resources.

So, what happened? For the young man, his idea was shot down almost immediately.  The teacher recommended that the young man do a project on windshield wiper fluid instead. I saw that young man’s face fall before she could complete the sentence. I had some reservations about the proposal, too – safety ones. Could he safely (and legally)  ‘test the brakes’?  He was making a very good case that he had an old family car that he worked on routinely, so he had a vehicle.  It was as we were discussing ‘testing locations’ (i.e. drag strips) that the teacher interrupted with her suggestions. That was the end of that brilliant idea and he never participated so enthusiastically in class again.

3. Active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers

There was another student who proposed to test maze learning with her pet hamster. She was one my tough girls, don’t-get-in-my-face girls, ain’t-never-scared girls. Only 16 or 17, her life was already complicated: she was a parent and had lost both of her parents. But reading her well-designed protocol (she had the entire experiment designed: question, hypothesis and prediction), I was heartened. She didn’t have maze nor the obvious resources to get one. It just so happened that I did. One of the failed projects of my dissertation was ‘Multi-arm maze learning in prairie voles’. I told her that it was a great idea and that I have a maze that she could use, but that testing pets are definitely a no-no and you can’t do an experiment with just one subject. She frowned a little. Then I thought voles and hamsters are equivalent and I asked her if she was willing to do the experiment at the university and with my voles. She could run as many trials as she found the time to do. And she did. She did an amazing job.

Quite unexpectedly, she placed in the school fair and qualified for the county-wide Science Fair. I was so proud of her. But apparently, kids of her ilk were not expected to place. I got amazing push back from the honors biology teacher. She wasn’t forth coming about her placing, held out on giving the young lady her ribbon, and threw away her poster presentation and notebook at the end of the school fair. (Incidentally, an original notebook is a major part of the rubric for regional science fairs). And was completely reluctant to give me (or the teacher) the paperwork for her to compete in the regional science fair.  As you can imagine, I was livid.  But I leveraged my department’s resources to get another presentation printed and motivated her to re-write her notebook – as much as she could remember – and get her presentation ready for the regional competition.  She didn’t place at this fair, but she represented her school well.

As a result of her fine performance (in my opinion) I decided to try to get her enrolled in an authentic research summer program for high school students.  Each summer, I noticed high school students in the hallway working in science labs alongside graduate students and professors doing experiments.  I approached the director of that program (which is housed in my department) and told him about my student. I asked how might she apply for this program; I thought it would be a great opportunity for her. He asked what school she attended. I told him and he exhaled. Then told me she had to have a very high GPA in order to get into the program. It’s a very competitive program. He didn’t ask about her grades or her performance with me.  Until that conversation, I had hardly noticed that most of the students in that program came from wealthier school districts. That was the end of that conversation. I was floored.

Age and Sex Differences in Exploratory Behavior of Prairie Voles, Microtus ochrogaster from Danielle Lee

She continued to work with me via a ‘new’ high school research program we created for ‘alternative students. She assisted me throughout my dissertation and presented this poster at the 2006 International Animal Behavior Society Meeting….as a high school student. Take that!

This type of pre-judging of students happens all too often. Students from poor and poorly performing school districts, students who wear sagging pants or speak slang or with accents, students that may not make good grades, students from single-parent/multi-generation homes – these kids are denied an opportunity to participate at the gate.  I cannot count the number of students I have encountered who have promise but absolutely no idea where to start or how to get started.

I have seen in at the high school and college level  - professors that turn away students with GEDs or those who struggle academically, but who show up anyway. So many students who have been dismissed or passed over by teachers, guidance counselors, and professors because s/he may not be polished enough for top-level science. (Whatever that means.)

Hip Hop Education- I’m here for them!

I see the promise of possibility in them. I know what they are missing isn’t intelligence or capacity to learn or tenacity. They simply lack exposure and guidance and chance – a chance to show what they know and present it in a way that is relevant to them. That’s Hip Hop Education.

I see the kinesthetic genius in the B-boy. I get logic and analytical skill of the ghetto philosopher. I comprehend the mathematic genius of the D-boys. I see the art and science in the glyphs of graffiti. I see it.

I am unapologetically black and urban and female. Why does this matter to science? Because access to science (information and career opportunities) has real life consequences for people. But if the academia doesn’t have representation or at least people who understand these students, then how do they gain access to higher education or STEM?  There are real disparities in this nation – in education, economically, health, income, quality of life, and more.  Being black or brown, from the inner-city or deep rural areas, being a woman or disabled affects which side of the equation you land on.

I am also unapologetically SCIENCE! Together ALL of these words make up my identity. I am all of these things (and more) and I aim cultivate and train a battalion of hundreds of more just like me: clever kids from single-parent homes, from the hood. I plan to vehemently defend their right to be given a chance and shut down anyone who would dare say a disparaging word against any one of my students.

If I, as a PhD scientist with credentials, cannot call my fellow scientists to task on the role privilege and prejudices play in academia, then who can? Better yet, who else will?

Note: This post was inspired by a post by Miriam Goldstein at Deep Sea News: A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity (January 24, 2013).  Please read it and comment. This conversation about the role of privilege and access to STEM by diverse students is an important one. Miriam and I both have been very active in science outreach to under-served (and urban) initiating these conversations in our respective scientific spheres.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. dusheck 4:52 pm 01/24/2013

    I am fast becoming a total fan of your blog. I have been volunteering for science fair here in California and have seen the same things over and over. It’s so frustrating. One time I volunteered to give 5th graders feedback on their projects and all the boys were encouraged to present and get feedback first. When it was time for the girls, only 1 of the 5 even had her project with her. Somehow all they boys knew and only one of the girls heard that someone would be there to give help. Last year, a girl whose parents took her to overseas for her science fair project and even interviewed scientists for her won a prize while judges barely looked at a modest but better executed project on the behavior of pet hamsters by two Latina girls.

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  2. 2. Paleoecologist 7:42 pm 01/24/2013

    Thank you for sharing this. These examples are heart-breaking, but these kinds of anecdotes have real power in showing folks who think in the abstract that these kinds of barriers to STEM diversity are real, and they play out in everyday ways. I thought it was so telling that where one teacher had merely shut a student down (the brake question), you found a workaround (for the student with the hamster idea). It’s a great example of showing that it’s possible to listen, even when we say no.

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  3. 3. anthonysalvagno 9:36 pm 01/24/2013

    At first I was surprised by your story, but then realized that I’ve witnessed this too! I’ve volunteered for the regional science fair here in Albuquerque and have witnessed other judges inadvertently discouraging underprivileged students. To make matters worse, the judges clearly pick their favorites and vote accordingly behind closed doors. When I speak up about being fair to all the students, I’m either ignored or become a threat and quickly put down.

    It is really disheartening to witness and hear about excited students being discouraged from pursuing a path in science. Even if that path is just being excited about it.

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  4. 4. cassierodenberg 9:45 pm 01/24/2013

    Thank you for your writings and your passion to open science beyond the middle and upper classes. I’m in the South Bronx daily and vehemently believe in the kids and people I see, largely with a greater interest in science than most, whether it be through mechanics, physics of parkour, etc. Many just need to be told, “hey, you’re good in science!” and believed in.

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  5. 5. Diane Menke 3:51 pm 01/25/2013

    Thank you so much for this account of access to science and learning in America. It reminded me of my own pre college education. I grew up in a town focused mostly on ag prep and only a few people went to college. I was lucky to have a few very wonderful teachers in pre college, who like you, set the tone for what I might dream of doing some day.

    My own parents never went to college but instead completed vocational training programs in Europe. Nevertheless they did emphasis the importance of education and access to information. They are also pretty tough characters and never let us give up on any interest we showed in anything.

    I hope you realize that probably the most valuable aspect of the education you are giving these kids is your personal example to them; Keep the faith. Fight for your rights. Don’t give up. Be very creative. Stay positive. Find the solution.

    I enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s Book “Outliers” in which he discusses where success comes from. By your example you are showing these kids where it comes from. Even if they don’t make it to the science fair, they have learned very powerful skills from you, for creating positive futures for themselves.

    Keep up the good fight! And please keep telling your story!

    Diane Menke
    Philadelphia PA

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  6. 6. wnourse 4:17 pm 01/25/2013

    Your post is right on target – from the lack of resources to the lack of belief. As a nation, we’re facing a crisis for poor students, an increasing opportunity gap that causes the achievement gap to remain a stark divide.

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to have an impact on the kids you worked with; we need to get more practicing STEM professionals providing hands-on learning and mentoring opportunities to our students, showing them what they can do.

    I’m CIO at Citizen Schools (www.citizenschools.org), a national educational non-profit whose mission is exactly this; to bring professionals of all sorts into our most under-served schools to help kids discover and achieve their dreams. It would be great to get you involved in this effort!

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  7. 7. HubertB 4:49 pm 01/25/2013

    I knew a school teacher in a slum school, a physics major. He received an excellent review. He was fired and replaced by an English major. She did not know the first thing about physics but she knew how to be female.
    The principal explained: None of those children would ever be scientists and the school could use the extra money she would bring the school.

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  8. 8. pmarduengo 4:52 pm 01/25/2013

    I love this blog post. I’ll never forget the teacher, who after seeing a picture of me in front of my home, said “I would have never guessed you lived in a trailer”. I never got an A from that teacher after that. It was clear to me that where I lived, in her eyes, determined my ability to perform in her class. Very early in education opinions are formed (and often recorded on the dreaded “permanent record”) about the abilities of students by people who simply don’t have any reasonable basis on which to make those judgments. It really robs us of the marvelous potential that we have in our young people, which is a shame, since they are our future.

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  9. 9. SynCallio 7:04 pm 01/25/2013

    Wow.

    Do you know, I started thinking about how the kid with the brake-wear idea could do his experiments: my brother is involved in autocross racing. It’s timed racing through an obstacle course: excellent for putting brakes through their paces, and I bet the people involved would love to help a kid with his science fair project. They’d want to know the results! Plus, the kid would meet adults who enjoy physics and chemistry as they relate to cars, engines, transmissions, and the rest.

    The frankly classist behavior you describe at the end is horrifying. Science doesn’t need “the best and the brightest”. Science needs people who are interested, who enjoy it and are willing to learn. Same as any other field of study. You will find those people in every corner of the world, among the poor as much as the rich. Thank you for making that clear.

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  10. 10. edwardborland 6:23 am 01/26/2013

    You have made my day.

    I am so heartened to know people such as yourself are making a difference and have a voice.

    Thank you for being inspirational to others and for your selfless effort!

    I’m sure people reading this are listening and thinking “What can I do?”.

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  11. 11. Anne Jefferson 9:13 am 01/27/2013

    This is a really great post, Danielle. Thank you so much for writing it. As someone who grew with science fairs, and who has seen both the good and back of school resources devoted to science fairs, I wasn’t too surprised (just saddened) by your first two stories. But the one of the teacher who tried to prevent her student from going onto the regional fair is just heartbreaking.

    I’m currently trying to wrap my head around my university’s graduate admissions policy, which requires a set minimum GPA for all undergraduate coursework. There’s no time limit on how far back they will calculate that GPA. If someone took a year of college in 1998, did poorly, worked for 10 years, then went back, did well, got a degree, and applied to graduate school, that first try at college could lower their GPA enough to make it hard for them to come to our university as a graduate school. It seems like an insane policy for a university that prides itself on serving first-generation and diverse students – there’s no second chances for students who matured a lot along the path to their undergraduate degree – and its another example of active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers. It’s a small place where I hope I can make a difference, while you are out there making a big difference. Keep up the good work of speaking truth to power and making a difference in people’s lives.

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  12. 12. HurricaneLake 4:09 pm 01/27/2013

    I love you DNLee. You are actually one of my heroes. I am in awe of you, your comments, your work. How lucky we all are that you remain involved. This post is so important as this problem still exists. The Langston Hughes poem is so indicative of this problem. I am going to post it on my wall. Bless you and thank you for being concerned and involved.

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  13. 13. Becky Wragg Sykes 10:43 am 01/28/2013

    Hi Danielle, I wanted to comment a few days ago, but had problems registering, then your tweets about commenting on blogs more reminded me! Just want to say I’m inspired by the work you do to create that confidence in young people. I’ve only done a bit myself, working on Archaeology Days with school kids at University of Manchester, but I’m hoping to do more, especially go back and work with my old high school in south London.
    Thanks for writing and being inspiring!
    Becky

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  14. 14. phalaris 12:41 pm 01/28/2013

    To get anywhere in science or engineering you need a lot of maths and a firm grounding in basic physics, and probably some chemistry as well. If at the age of 16 or 17 you aren’t well along that path or at least making serious efforts to catch up, things are going to be very difficult. I wonder if what you were interpreting as prejudice just wasn’t a more realistic view of the prospects of the candidate getting on in science. Science fairs are all very well, but at the end of the day you have to pass tough exams in the basics.

    The problems start earlier, with the false values kids get inculcated with, and lack of parental encouragement. Just how far can society go to try to remedy those disadvantages? Left-wing ideology is another problem: it’s taboo nowadays to try to identify at an early age the kids with the potential for achievement in science.

    Another problem, in my view, is that it’s much easier to get decent grades in subjects other than maths and science. Many people are opting for courses which are little more than mickey-mouse stuff, and coming out of it with a certificate that looks as good as one in science subjects.

    Whatever, the motto must be: catch’em young!

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  15. 15. digitalbio 3:23 pm 01/29/2013

    Thanks for writing this Danielle. You’ve raised some important points.

    I wonder if the teachers who were involved would recognize themselves in this story and what they would say about their actions or reactions.

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  16. 16. bucketofsquid 3:39 pm 01/30/2013

    I’ve seen both sides of this situation. I have two sons. While I am particularly white with blond hair and blue eyes, only one of my sons looks like me. Well they both have the same nose and build that I do but the older one has dark brown hair and eyes and very tanned skin and is usually mistaken for Mideastern or Hispanic heritage. The younger one is blond and blue eyed and even “whiter” than I am.

    Both were identified as gifted but the older boy also has a learning disability. We are firmly middle class. What was amazing to me was that my older son, my wife and I were met with such hostility by the public school system when ever we tried to talk to his school. Eventually we started him in a zoo based science focus program and the college like environment led to him getting better grades and graduating high school.

    With the younger one, remember he is blond and blue eyed, the school couldn’t do enough. He got a one on one tutor starting at grade 3. He was invited into the International Baccalaureate program. The school even arranged an internship at the local university chemistry lab when he was still a sophomore and again when he was a junior.

    Both boys scored the same on the academic standardized tests but one reads and thinks much slower. One is rather brown and the other isn’t. I can’t say there was an economic component to the discrimination but there certainly was an appearance element.

    I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I am a Meritocrat. People have value based on what they do for society. A class society such as America is degrading into, is outright evil specifically because it denies the chance to excel to the majority of our society.

    The same school staff that dreaded the sight of us when we were concerned about our older son bent over double to try to get us to talk to them about our younger son. We decided to treat them the same as they had treated us and ignored them.

    The bitterest part of it all is that my younger son truthfully points out to all who will listen that his older brother would get home from school and sit down with him and teach him everything he had learned in school.

    I’m no commy and it is only natural for parents to want to give their children a head start. My personal opinion is that there should be a 100% inheritance tax and each generation should start from scratch. School funding should be pooled nationally and the same amount given to each school district no matter the cost of living. From there it should be up to the individual district but core classes should be required.

    This way there is still incentive to excel so motivation remains but the “old money” gets eradicated. This also encourages the rich to support substantial school funding because otherwise their own children have a sub-par school. Eliminate private schools nation wide but not home schooling. Have early testing that identifies the students with an inclination for STEM and have the results processed nationally in a double blind way. When a student is identified as STEM ready, require the school to provide the supplies and opportunities those students need. Each school would have the same number of dollars per student so few schools would lack the resources.

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  17. 17. WizeHowl 6:36 am 01/31/2013

    Wow, what a lot racists these people are! Living in Australia, we have had our share racism with the Aborigine but not in the school system over the last 40 or 50 years! At least not by the system itself, all students get the same education here, until the end of eight grade then they move into University, and that has always been on merit only.

    To gain access to any University of your choice here you have to have the right grades, not the right colour skin or be from a certain area.

    I don’t know what STEM is but here we do have some assistance from the government if you can not afford to go to uni, they lend you the money and you pay it back later in your taxes when your earning enough money.

    Good on you, and keep up the good work! I despise racism of any sort. I had an Aboriginal mate and next door neighbour try to flay himself when we were about 10 so he could be *white* because the kids at school picked on him.

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  18. 18. Clifford E. LaMotte 1:20 am 02/1/2013

    Good article but you need to explain your abbreviations in the title or early in the piece. Not all of your readers are “insiders” privy to these shortcuts.

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  19. 19. JanetColdwell 1:09 pm 06/12/2013

    Hip Hop education is a good idea but doesn’t the name target it at one ethnic group when it could equally benefit all. steroids

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