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Monthly Archives: June 2017

Social justice in chemistry

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I’m relatively new to social justice, but when I realized what it involves, I knew that I needed to bring it to my classes. A few years ago through Twitter, I stated following a number of teachers and leaders who do and embody this work. I’m nowhere close to their levels of expertise, elegance, or confidence (yet), but I decided that this was the year for me to start bringing it to my classes.

Moses Rifkin is awesome.

Besides being a super nice guy, he has been doing social justice in his physics classes for a number of years. I finally met him at NSTA last fall and had a lovely afternoon discussing things and attending social justice sessions. He generously provided his curriculum in this series of guest posts on John Burk’s pages, I took (very) large chunks of his curriculum, subbed “chemistry” for “physics”, and was off to the races. I tried this unit in my AP Chemistry classes (not my 1st year chem courses) after The Exam was finished. 

Added bonus: I decided that I would try out OneNote for this unit (part of my professional goals), but did a bad job introducing this tool. My students (rightly) objected. 

Side-note: my school district is very strict about showing student work (even without names), so I can’t post any pictures of student work. 

I wanted to set my desks in a circle for discussion, but since only half of my classes did this unit (and they alternated in my schedule with the other classes), it was too much of a pain. I wish I had just done it. I’m lucky in that our English/SS teachers have trained our students well in how to have respectful conversations with each other, even with difficult topics. I did, however, use a “speaking ball” for the whole week: 

My generation’s fidget spinner.


It’s the day after Memorial Day and a week of non-school, so most of the kids hadn’t done the mini-research project of finding an African-American chemist. I asked for the name of a chemist, and most thought first of Marie Curie, but then listed all of the white men found in the names of various laws (Boyle, Avogadro, Hess, etc.). No living person came to mind, and only one woman. (Hey, chemists: do we have a spokesperson?? Nobody like Neil deGrasse Tyson or David Attenbourough or Jane Goodall or…).

I gave them a few minutes to start some searching for images, which pops up a white woman in a lab coat (advertisements/stock photos), a lot of people staring intently at test tubes of colored liquids, a few pharmacists (thanks, English!), and a few shocked people with crazy hair. In short, few actual chemists, nobody doing any real science, nearly all white. 

Then we took a few minutes to compare basic US racial demographics to science industry demographics and college degree stuff. We talked about why. Since 2/3rds of my classes were jet-lagged and they hadn’t completed the first assignment, this was challenging to jump into. I tried to get them to produce reasons for this gap in intended college degrees and attained degrees. This definitely perked up some ears, mostly because they hadn’t thought about it before. 

Homework: pick a hypothesis about differences and research it thouroughly. 


Discussed the stats they found regarding particular hypotheses about why African-Americans aren’t found in proportional numbers in chemistry. Different classes took different interests (one more of a social bent and one more of a financial bent), and threw around a lot of numbers. Students were okay with sharing numbers, but it took a bit to get them to propose possible implications. I’m glad numbers is starting this unit, so that students have something to hold on to that’s not just anecdote. We discussed whether all these numbers were comparing apples to oranges or not, and what it would take to make it more apples-to-apples.

Then I tried to get them to define racism and who perpetrated what. A few students knew a sort of academic definition (relating to cultural dominance/white power), but it wasn’t communicated clearly to others and didn’t stick. 

Homework: read some articles from a list. 

Stereotypes and what we can say about them.discussed the articles they read. It’s interesting to me that the students already know that “low-income” and “people of color” often overlap, but some students needed reminders that those terms aren’t synonymous. I brought up two things: how racism was viewed if it was intentional (racial slurs or worse) versus unintentional (implicit bias or microaggression), and trying to identify who can be a perpetrator of racism. 

Privilege was a pretty involved topic. Our school body has a lot of privileges as a whole. There were some good commentions between personal privileges and possible affordances, along with thinking of others’ lack of privileges and possible lack of opportunities. 

Conversations are super involved, very respectful, but I feel like they’re rushed (argh… my carefully planned six day schedule isn’t extend-able at this point!)

Homework: read some articles. 


Students discussed their thoughts on articles, many of them read one on the history of race and the Oregon Territory. After a bit, I asked them to put their conversations on hold, and try a new thing (which is based on Jess’s mind-blowing classroom… I’d move to get my kid in her classroom!):

I wasn’t sure about a whole day (there’s only so many days left with my Seniors) with this activity, and I knew my high schoolers would, especially after three days of race-thinking, catch on to the predict-the-story-between-two-books thing. Instead, I gave the whole class all 22 books at once, and asked them to match them to the list of descriptions. They did pretty well (each class got more than half correct), but then there’s the larger discussion around why getting them “correct” isn’t the important part, that about half of the stories still weren’t known/were incorrectly judged, that 16 of the books depict people of color, that the more emotion-related stories (divorce, bullies, etc.) largely involved white characters, and of quite literally judging books by their covers. Also, I taped over the library designation on the spines. Our amazing public library system recently re-organized the children’s books into interest sections, such as “Animals”, “Sparkly”, and “Things That Go”. The books I checked out came from either “Our World”, “Life Issues”, or “Biographies”. Our class discussions were far more surface-level than Jess’s class, but I did enjoy it as a first attempt, and am very interested to give it its own day next year.

Students then got into Peggy McIntosh’s “Knapsack”. And the idea of privilege was pretty well-accepted in our class, but how to deal with it created a lot of conversations regarding what’s seen as unearned privilege, and whether affirmative action is a form of unearned something or not. Also some connections to feminism, and a few family stories of immigration. This was a day that I wanted to keep going for a while.

Homework: do two IAT tests. 


The IAT test results were interesting, and a lot of students were interested in what it all means. We talked about possible problems with the tests, as well as implications. A couple students took the same test multiple times to see if their results remained the same. 

Homework: look up a non-white and/or non-male chemist and make a poster about them!


The posters they generated are fantastic! I gave them the option of posting them in my room, in the halls, or keeping them private. There’s a great bulletin board outside my classroom, filled with pictures and details of non-male and/or non-white chemists, which makes me so proud of the work they’ve done this week. 

Homework: fill in an anonymous survey about the last week. 

 Wrap Up / Takeaway 

In my post-course survey, nearly all of the feedback was neutral-to-positive. A number of students stated that they wanted this discussion in other classes, and wanted to do more. Some said that this provided them with a safe place to have conversations (or at least a place to say things openly with peers). I need to have more conversation-drivers for those quiet times (although I think that the circle of desks will help, as well as having quiet times isn’t all bad). I also need to be more clear about my expectations for the week, including that it’s okay to be uncomfortable in these discussions. 

These are my AP Chemistry students. My students are generally pretty good about completing homework and doing things I ask of them. This unit had the highest homework completion rate of the entire year: they want to have these discussions. And to the best of my abilities, I’ll continue to provide my students a place to have them.