Does geography determine who gets to learn science? Who does science belong to? In this episode, we discuss Dr. Sophia Rahming’s provocative research around the structural biases and barriers to studying science and the need for culturally responsive science education. Dr. Rahming is an Associate Director in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Florida State University and is researching the experiences of Afro-Caribbean women in STEM in the United States.
STEM for All (Part 1) - The Labster Podcast Episode 7
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone, I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast, I'm proud to say that at Labster we are guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission. So thank you.
April [00:00:28] With me, as always, is my friend and fellow Labsterite SJ Boulton, an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster Virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college and university. This is part one of a special episode where we'll talk with a strong proponent of democratizing science education.
April [00:00:53] Our guest is involved in outreach to students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM courses and helps faculty at her university to transition from a traditional lecture based approach to learning toward more active learning. We can't wait to get started, so let's meet her.
April [00:01:15] Today, we are joined by Dr. Sophia Rahming. She is an associate director in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Florida State University and also earned her Ph.D. at FSU, where she is researching the experiences of Afro-Caribbean women in STEM in the United States. Sophia's passion and goal is to increase opportunities that lead to STEM for all. Welcome to the podcast, Sophia.
Sophia [00:01:40] Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
SJ [00:01:43] The focus of your research is all about STEM and STEM for All and scientific education democratization. And what I was wondering is, please, could you kind of define what stem for all means for you?
Sophia [00:01:55] For me, that means that anyone in this world who is interested in studying STEM in an informal or a formal way has the opportunity to do that and that there are not structural biases or obstacles to that pursuit. And so for me, democratizing that or having STEM for All means that those students, adults, whomever they see themselves in science to and that they have the sense of belonging, they know that they can and will do science.
SJ [00:02:35] That's awesome. How do you feel has been excluded by the traditional educational system?
Sophia [00:02:40] I think any person of color I'm looking at any traditional textbook or the curriculum in science, as broad as that may be from just bio to math, certainly won't see themselves in it. They've been erased.
Sophia [00:02:59] And it's not that they haven't done it because they have done it. In fact, a lot of what we do has been contributed by persons of color. But if you were to go by what you see in a book, they don't exist. Right. And so for me, the structure is the intentional erasure of people of color from this thing that we call STEM.
SJ [00:03:25] OK, so I know that, for example, the Labster were working really hard to give visibility to different body types, to different skin tones within scientific space. So for a celebrity and I'm wondering, are you seeing examples where those changes are happening or do you feel that there are examples of things that are moving in the right direction?
Sophia [00:03:46] I think Labster is moving in the right direction. There's always room for improvement. But more broadly, no, I still see science represented as a white or Asian pursuit. The message is that these are the two groups that do science well and you are an exceptional person of color. Some of the literature calls that the exceptional Negro right that. Is able to do this work well, and I think that is a disservice to students, to our world, right, because there are things that need to be solved, things that need to be designed and innovated that only certain groups are interested in because it affects them. And to the extent that they are not included is a loss for all of us.
SJ [00:04:37] I completely agree. I think about my own experiences as a teacher and the cohorts that I would see and the cohorts that came to the courses and to the experiences. They weren't always hugely diverse. And I guess a lot of that is to do with the way that we recruit students or perhaps even before then, the way the students identify themselves as being a person interested in science or a person who could be a scientist. And I wonder, what do you feel could be done different? So do you think that's something that needs to be addressed like a high school level, at a university level? What do you think needs to change to attract and maintain the student's interest?
Sophia [00:05:16] I think students are already attracted and interested. My line that I say to my friends is that they are geniuses at the beginning, science geniuses and then school and society de-geniuses them. It sends these strong messages by the culture, by the way, in which we interact by the curriculum choices that we make, by our communication styles and lack of intercultural competency that signals and sends that message, look, you don't belong here, OK? You need to find something else to do.
SJ [00:05:48] Forgive my naivety, but could you give me an example of what you mean when you say the curriculum choices?
Sophia [00:05:54] OK, so when your books are so the easiest one, right. Is your images and you pick up any science image in a science for kids. And who's doing that science work? You might see a group of students and a few of them, maybe three, will be white students and among them will be a white woman or white young girl. And then you might see some color, maybe an Asian student, and far less regularly.
Sophia [00:06:30] If you are at least here in the United States, it'll be an Indian student and an African-American student. And just by those numbers, you are signaling that some people do this more than others. Right? Whether you think it's important or not, I look for my representation, which is why young black girls really love Doc McStuffins fight, because here is this young black girl who is involved in science and not just doing science to do it, but I mean, doing it well and loved. And there was a point when they were going to take that programing away and if not for an outcry from parents, it would be gone. And so this one thing that you have in the sea, of all the other things, Jimmy Neutron, OK, there's the science person in your cartoons that you watch as a kid is usually a young boy and he is either involved with some scientist that also an Einstein looking crazy scientist.
Sophia [00:07:34] So who does science, right? It's not you. You move up and it doesn't change, you go to junior school and the books stay the same and the people who impact science stay the same. If you're studying your physics, it's only going to be all dead white men and you get that straight up into college, right? It's like nobody that looked like me did anything.
SJ [00:08:01] That's a really great example, thank you for it. Kind of expanding on that, so what would you like to see change outside of kind of the imagery that you see, for example, in textbooks or in recruitment materials? I suppose, to an extent. To what else would you like to see change?
Sophia [00:08:18] I would like to see the content itself change such that it is culturally responsive. Right. I know that there is money in big production of science materials that come out of, for example, the United States that is shipped everywhere. And some of the examples they use are not culturally relevant. I know that I certainly had science books that talked about what we were talking about precipitation and they talked about snow. And it became this dream for a Caribbean woman to see snow, saw it, hated it, moved on. But all of the science wasn't based in what was important to me. Like nothing talked about. Well, you're living in an island. And what does that look like in terms of science and what the hurricanes doing an environmental studies and stuff like that?
Sophia [00:09:15] That was not a push right in my time, we were doing GCE science out of London and the curriculum was that it wasn't mine to the extent that a lot of countries now have changed to their own national curriculum. When you look at it inside, it hasn't changed. It's still GCE. You know, it hasn't changed in the 20 more years that I've been out of school. It's still the same topics that don't necessarily direct their students towards their specific life experience framed by science.
SJ [00:09:51] I wonder if there's something that so let's say, for example, in the next generation science standards, the idea of having crosscutting concepts that can be set and contextualized and then as cultural based. If these are things that are starting to come through, that could help towards creating access.
Sophia [00:10:11] I think so. When the curriculum is context specific, I can make those connections right. What is the real world application of. I know when I'm going to give you an example in geography, when we finally got to land and sea breezes and hurricanes, that was so important to me because that's what I experienced every year, like multiple times per year. And I understood that this was a scientific phenomenon. It wasn't a myth. Are these two gods or this spirit is doing whatever in the Caribbean searching for this? No, no. This is hot air, cold air meeting. And so it had relevance.
Sophia [00:10:59] And I think to the extent like I'm always saying that it's context specific. It has some relevance to your life. You sit up, right, you perk up. This is what is affecting me all, and it starts you thinking, how can I make, for example, better construction codes, building materials that will enable us to live in this environment, like better heating and cooling. All these things come out of science for sure.
SJ [00:11:29] I get that. It's so interesting to kind of reflect on a little bit while listening to you talk. As a white British Northeastern dwelling female, I've been very lucky that basically the context of every scientific thing that I've learned has been the rain deeply so.
Sophia [00:11:50] Yes.
SJ [00:11:52] Yes. Flooding and the sea. Those are the things that I learned about. But they were relevant and I saw those things every day. I live within two miles of the seaside. Those were things growing up that were reflected in my living. And so I'm grateful to have had those experiences. I didn't learn about hurricanes. I didn't learn about earthquakes. And I'm just thinking, you know, those are things that those are phenomena that do happen in other places that aren't relevant to me. And I didn't read them. But if my learning experience, if the framework that I learned from is being exported to countries where those phenomena aren't being represented, then that makes no sense.
Sophia [00:12:27] Yes. And I'm certainly not advocating for not including your experience in the textbook. Right. Because if it were not for the snow in the book, I would not have dreamed of Snow White like I love the sand. All Europeans are coming to the sand. They want to get tanned and brown. And I just want to put on a parka. I want to go skiing. I want to see what this snow is.
Sophia [00:12:58] It inspired something in me. Right. And so I am not saying, oh, everything needs to be definitely context specific, but I must be integrated in that right. Another thing I talk about is science is empire. Who determines who gets what kind of science?
Sophia [00:13:16] There is a student. Well, she's not a student anymore. She's graduated now with a PhD in just an astrophysicist. She was the first black female graduate astrophysicist from FSU and she is from Trinidad. Right. So here is a young woman from an island nation where we don't necessarily have the infrastructure to support her as a professional until she come to the United States and she pursues this degree. If not for that opportunity, then you would not have its first black graduate. But she would also not have the field. She would probably be thinking about something that is in the oil industry because that is specific to her context. I want people to know their context, but also to dream bigger.
SJ [00:14:06] I can only imagine what the skies look like in Trinidad, I've never been.
Sophia [00:14:12] It's blue and the waters are blue and it's like Caribbean nations, right? It's warm and the people are gregarious and they're just like everybody else. They're the rich, the poor, they're middle class. They're like everybody else. But if you are only. So this comes out of my dissertation research. If you are only allowed to do a certain kind of science and you are, I shouldn't even say if you are only allowed to do a certain kind of science based on your geography. So science is empire. It depends on where you are.
Sophia [00:14:46] And your ability to get out and study somewhere else, but then could you return? Could you make that return to home when you're done. Sometimes there's just nothing there for you to do. You aspire to study black holes and you come to England or you come to the United States and you study black holes when you want to return home. You're not going to find work in that area. So you're going to have to stay outside of your country.
Sophia [00:15:15] And to some extent, unless you are endowed with this altruistic streak, you are not going to reach back and find other ways to inspire other students to be like you. And so that, for me, too, is like sometimes of a challenge, because here, like every day you can look and you can find one or two people who are doing some work that are inspiring for you, but you can't go home and do black holes sometimes.
SJ [00:15:45] They're really interesting.
Sophia [00:15:46] Yes, it is my point of view that is science is empire is really a thing. And if not for immigration abilities or access, some people will never achieve their STEM dreams. And we won't get the innovation that we desperately need in this world.
Sophia [00:16:09] There is someone right now who's in Bangladesh, who has figured out something but may not have access to STEM education. And that might be what we need to solve some of this snow in Texas, like we figure out some climate change kinds of things that we can do that is appealing to more people nand we don't get fires in California and snow on the beach in Texas.
April [00:16:38] So that's really what we're losing. Yes, that's what we're losing.
April [00:16:41] I'd love to hear you kind of expand a little bit on that, Sophia, because there are girls there are boys in this world that are not even yet in the school system in the next 20 years. How are things going to change so that we don't lose them?
Sophia [00:16:57] I'm hoping that ... We are on a The Labster Podcast, right? And this is not a plug for Labster, but I see the possibilities. From the moment I heard about it, I saw the possibilities and I was like, whoa, here is an arm of my science for all. Come from a country of Ireland, 700 islands and keys, 18, maybe since some of the hurricanes and and COVID maybe 13, that are inhabited and developed with people living on it constantly. Within those islands are districts. Right. People are living all over the island. There is no just one school which would not be rich, not something you want. So you want science in the Bahamas, for example.
Sophia [00:17:48] How many labs can you build as a developing nation? Like when you think about your priorities in terms of your budget, what are we going to allocate our budget to do? And already in my country, the largest chunk of it goes to education. Can I replicate this plant, first of all, 13 times such a big broad 13 times and then multiply that by two. Twenty six times that. And in the capital, maybe we need about 14, 15 more of those. So let's say around 40 labs just at the high school level talking to in your school, elementary school, not just high school, you don't have the kind of budgetary resources to do that.
Sophia [00:18:34] And I see that in other developing nations who are trying to get their students educated while building infrastructure while talking about human rights and all of these other things that are pulling on the money that you have and you're in trade wars with this person and you're doing this with the next person and there's unrest. And what do you do? Right. Here's Labster, this product that brings down you need an Internet connection and you bring world class lab opportunities to a student in these developing nations.
April [00:19:15] That's all the time we have for today. But you'll be able to hear part two of our thought provoking interview with Dr. Sophia Rahming in our next episode. Thanks for listening. If you like this episode, we hope you'll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast until next time, keep teaching, keep learning and stay safe.
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