All year is great time to learn more about science and the people who make the discoveries. But February offers a unique opportunity to learn about the achievements of African-Americans (and others from the African Diaspora) in the sciences.
During my primary school years, my most memorable lessons involved themes. My hometown has this amazing city-wide cultural program called Memphis is May. Each year, a different country is saluted and the entire city learns all about this nation's culture and customs. For an entire month, all of our lessons encompassed the history and customs of that nation. It was more than just social studies, it taught us a new way look to look at math, language, sciences, and arts. We even learned playground games for children our age. We were completely enmeshed and I loved every minute of it.
Later, in high school we still had programs, but the nothing as stimulating and engrossing as the lessons I experienced in earlier grades. However, I had a little taste of it when Black History Month rolled around. I attended a majority African-American School, lead by very good and culturally responsible teachers, so we went all out. In English class, students had to read literature written by important Black Authors and in science class we discussed the contributions of Black Scientists. Perhaps it was at this time that my 10th grade Biology teacher, Mrs. Bennett shared her story. It's a bit patchy now, but she attended a non Historically Black College (HBCU) for her Master's in science I believe and she had a biology professor who deliberately excluded her from some lessons. Luckily, her class mates were more fair-minded and shared notes with her so she was able to pass her classes. But I since the hurt she must have felt trying to succeed, only to have someone throw an obstacle in your way for no other reason than you were different. She later went on to win a hosts of commendations, including the Distinguished Teacher Award by the Tennessee Academy of Sciences in 1975 and was among the very first class of Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science in 1983.
Many years later, while serving as a NSF GK-12 fellow, students were given an assignment to research and give a presentation on a Famous Black Scientist. Invariably the students seem to pick the same common names, George Washington Carver, Benjamin Banneker, Mae Jemison. The presentations were mostly of old dead men and seemed to be the same presentations given year after year. They were so focused on 'history' or 'fame' that they were completely unaware of the scientists who made a mark right in their very hometown or scientists who were still alive but living quiet lives.
They were missing the mark, but it wasn't their faults. We weren't selling them on the assignment very well.
So, this brings me to my yearly plea to my science friends. educator friends, my friends in science outreach, after-school care, friends who mentor youth in scouts - anyone who is a guardian of a child, who is a mentor and influencer of young people, or even if you're a seasoned adult who wants to challenge yourself to new lessons.
It doesn't have to be someone famous. It is by sharing the stories and testimonies of less famous scientists that students can come to know these contributors. As bloggers and science communicators, the public depends on us to spread knowledge far and wide.
Ideas for how to create a Blacks in Science Report
- Make it personal. If you're a scientists or studying science, identify an African-American in your field of study. This person can be a historical figure or present day colleague. If the person is still with us, seek him/her out. Conduct an interview. Most people are accessible online and can answer questions via email.
- If you're a blogger, invite a colleague to share his/her story of how s/he arrived at science. It would make a great #IamScience Story for students from all areas to see. host these stories on your blog.
- If you are a teacher or college instructor, have your students complete such an assignment for a grade or extra-credit.
- If you're an after-school or weekend care provider, have students research black scientists and give a presentation about the person they researched at Black History Month program at school or church or Scouts meeting.
Other sources to get started
- History Makers has a host of 1st person accounts of Blacks in Science, called Science Makers.
- American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has links to several great resources, including lesson plans for all ages and audio programs like Science Update with interviews of African-American Scientists.
It's really simple. It's just about getting the conversation started and opening up our eyes to see the people around us. Acknowledging how we each have contributed to making the world a better place, makes us better friends to each other.
You can submit your Blacks in Science Report to the February 2012 Edition of the Diversity in Science Carnival. Deadline for submission is Saturday, February 25, submit your blog post at MinorityPostdoc.org.
The Carnival will be hosted at PhD for Life.