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Monthly Archives: June 2018

Social justice in chemistry, year 2

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It’s Year 2 of this project. Last year, I used Moses Rifkin’s curriculum around race (specifically, Black and White American chemists). While the conversations were great, it was uncomfortable because of my school’s demographics. We have very few Black students, and I didn’t  moderate properly around some issues (this was pointed out to me later by a student). I had talked with the Black students in my class before the unit happened, but I was still pretty uncomfortable with basically having them anecdotally represent a whole race. While I believe I could moderate and check those conversations more effectively this year, I instead chose to use Moses’ outline with some of John Burk’s resources around gender this year. I have more than 50% women in my AP Chemistry class (interestingly, this demographic is different from the AP Physics and AP CS classes, taught by men, at my school). I wanted to have more students actually in the “minority” class we were discussing, as well as having my (fortunately limited sexism) experience as a woman in sciences.

Day 1: Intro, Ground Rules, and Numbers

I tried to get my chairs in a rough circle to facilitate conversations (I didn’t do it last year, and it was hard to get some people to talk with each other). I have a very large and engaged group this year, and it’s exciting to hear their ideas.

I asked for names of chemists, and got the usual: Marie Curie, Rutherford, other scientists in names of Laws. But no living scientists (one student suggested me, which is flattering, but no one knew a famous living chemist). We discussed what it means that the first name is a woman, and the rest are men. Also, we couldn’t think of a single living chemist, other than a couple of relatives. They remembered that I’d brought up Madame Lavoisier and others in class.

Trying to find a picture of a real chemist, not a stock photo is interesting, too. Online searches for “chemistry” or “chemist” get lots of pictures of white women and men, intently examining food coloring in test tubes. The pictures looked too staged and clean to be real chemists (I think I’m doing something right, having this be a justification).

Day 2: Stereotypes and Perceptions

What does it mean that approximately 53% of college graduates with chemistry degrees are women? Our class demographics (about 42% men, 58% women) match this idea. A few students said that obviously, the newer generations of college graduates will start bringing up the employment numbers (approximately 28% women chemists). But when we looked at how long the 50/50 split had been going, questions remained about why women are underrepresented in chemistry-related jobs.

What is “stereotype threat” and are women seen as “threatening”? Someone (these are juniors and seniors) brought up affirmative action.

Day 3: Cyclic systems

Pay gaps (visualized here in Scientific American). Are they justifiable by “maternity taxes” and women choosing to care for family? Do they then keep women out of furthering their pay? other education? their kids’ educations?

Are perceptions of women’s equality (e.g., while speaking) accurate? I thought about using the AreMenTalkingTooMuch app during class, but didn’t want to alienate or degrade conversations.

Day 4: Privilege

Discussed the articles they’d read for today. A lot of students thought that the Bic pens for her were fictitious things.

I set up Jess Lifshitz’s library book activity. Like last year, I let the whole class go at matching 26 books with my 26 vague descriptions. A few titles were put into multiple slots, but after about 10 minutes, they matched about two-thirds of the books to the descriptions. What did it mean that titles were “correct” or “incorrectly” matched? Does that mean something about how we make judgements on actual people?

I wonder if I could do this book activity with only-animal or non-human illustrations, looking for gender roles and expectations.

Day 5: IAT debrief

Students turned in their results from the Gender-Career and Gender-Sci/LangArts tests. As a group, we skewed toward associating men with careers and women with family, and men with science and women with language arts. Several students commented that the results were what they expected to see. Based on yesterday’s conversations around current statistics appearing about even, I asked about how our group results match up with our demographics and individuals’ expectations of particular college majors. What do our “expectations” have to do with how we collectively think of ourselves as a society? We discussed articles they’d read, relating to IAT and its assessment as a tool and as a resource. Also, about how biases begin, and their (probable) historical use.

Day 6: closure(?)

We took a gander at everyone’s posters. Lots of women. A couple people noted that it’s hard to find a random chemist online with enough biographical and research-related info to make a poster, noting that everyone they found was a university researcher. We discussed proprietary information and ties to industry, and wondered if university women were more or less tied than similar men.

I had them fill out a post-course-survey.


Round up:

My students are what my grandma would have called “intelligent, but not smart”, meaning they’re well-read and well-educated, but have no idea how to deal with people in the real world. (Grandma applied this to me and my cousin; I was the intelligent one, he was the smart one.) Academically, my students know what sexism (or racism or other -isms) is, how to dissect it in novels and essays, and whether they’ll face it or not (and many already have). Academically, they know how to deal with bullies and bigots, and how to help others, but they were all pretty scared to realize that now they need to start acting on these ideas. I’m also in their boat. Choosing to do this unit took me a few years to get the guts to prepare it, and I still only do it with my AP students (11th and 12th graders I’ve had for two years of classes) after the exam. I want to expand it to my Honors students (every 10th grader in the building): I think this is my way of starting conversations in my “intelligent” and introverted way.

This year felt very different. Instead of being more comfortable with using the curriculum a second time, it was essentially brand-new. Also, this year I was in the minority group and it made me think really hard about how to present ideas, whether I was over-sharing, whether I was getting too soap-box-y. There was a part of the class that was very certain of the everything-is-fine-sexism-is-dying-out persuasion. To his credit, one student was brave enough to say so during class, and students responding to him shared examples and reasons that made him apologize and start to re-think some things. One day when students were sleepy and responding less, I overstepped and turned preachy. I apologized the next day for adding too much of myself.

I’ve got so much privilege that I haven’t been in this position before. I’ve never had to tell someone what my experiences have been and why they matter. I’ve never had to hold myself back when “my generation” (meaning: I’m old!) was blamed over societal sexism and norms. Getting knocked down was hard manage, especially while trying to not push my own views too hard. I’m obviously not the first person to notice this balance, but it was my first time that I really cared about.

When I teach this unit again, I want to be more conscious of how it feels to be in the spoken-about-group rather than just the moderator. The anonymous class feedback I received was largely positive, and a majority of students said that we need to talk more about things they’ll see outside of our school-bubble, especially in non-humanities classes. I’m excited to continue this work, creating a modular version for other teachers to use. We need to have some conversations around how the identity of the presenter (and identity of the students) will drastically the contents and conversations of the unit.