While speaking with Profe Bensadon last fall, I got a sneak peek into the science department’s push to discuss issues of race in STEM classes. I spoke with Dr. Parry, Biology teacher and Upper School Science Department Head to learn more about how race intersects with Lakeside’s science curriculum, as well as the greater scientific community.
Q: Just to start out, could you tell me about the science department’s work regarding racial equity in the classroom?
A: Several years ago, we had discussions as a department about progressing on issues of racial equity in science: what it means to have representation, who is doing science, who we see as scientists.
Soon after that, Hidden Figures came out. The chemistry teachers said, “Let’s spend some time talking about this in class, about the issues it brings up in terms of science and race.” That got the rest of the department thinking: maybe we should set aside time to dive into these issues in all our core classes. So, in Physics classes, we talk about stereotype threat and how it can play out in the classroom. In Biology, we learn about the pretty horrifying history of biology and genetics, how eugenics has been used to put a sheen of “science” over racist ideas.
Q: And could you tell me a little bit more about what the biology curriculum looks like now?
A: During the evolution unit, which is earlier in the year, we spend some time watching a video and discussing the evolution of different skin colors. What is the biology behind that? What are some of the selective pressures that have led to different skin colors correlating to different latitudes on earth? We connect to the idea that there are genetic differences between people, and how some of those genetic differences have led to different skin colors.
And later in the genetics unit, we talk about the history of using genetics as a racist tool.
Q: How does what students learn in the classroom translate to medicine or science in the real world?
A: One big idea is that there is no gene for race. If you look at the genetic differences in the DNA within a racial category like “Black,” there is as much difference within that category as there are between Black individuals and Asian individuals.
So then take a disease like sickle cell anemia. It’s seen at an elevated level in Americans of African ancestry, so it gets categorized as a “Black disease.” That can lead to a lot of issues in the medical community. A doctor might overemphasize the disease when diagnosing someone who is Black, even if they aren’t ancestrally from an area with a high prevalence of sickle cell anemia.
Similarly, there’s a lot of concern about how we talk about COVID-19. It’s affecting people of color at a much higher rate, and that leads to people saying that there must be a genetic reason. But “people of color” is a pretty broad genetic category. It’s actually unlikely that they all share a genetic trait. But something that they all share is that they all experience racism to varying degrees, which impacts their health to different extents.
Q: Do scientists have a solution for how to stop overgeneralizing? Or how to think and talk about race in general?
A: I’ve been following some interesting Twitter debates about some of this. A lot of these debates center around how scientists communicate. Scientists like to think that they’re impartial, but that is not totally true. And even scientific findings that are impartially shared can be twisted by certain groups for their own purposes. So there’s concern within the scientific community: we don’t want to stop investigating race as a factor, but we need to be careful about how we’re talking about it.
Q: Going back to racial equity at Lakeside… when NhiVan T. ’21 and I wrote an article about Honors Physics a few years ago, I remember talking with non-Asian people of color who felt out of place in Honors STEM classes. What is the science department doing to combat that?
A: That’s definitely something we talk about a lot, and we’ve been gathering data to analyze that issue over the past four or five years. We look at who’s taking honors science courses, who’s selecting which advanced electives, for patterns and ways to encourage underrepresented groups to enter those spaces.
We’re still gathering data—we don’t have an answer yet. This year, we’re planning to share our data with the DEI team to discuss next steps.
Q: Are there any patterns in the data that stand out to you?
A: One thing that we talk about is that feeling you mentioned… the feeling of being the only one. We want to create a critical mass of students of color—so people look around and think yeah, I belong here. Something to explore is if you have five or six Black students in Honors Physics, and they’re in four different sections, what’s the impact of that versus a cohort within one section.
However, there’s other issues that come up with that. Just getting schedules to work out, for one. And then what is the impact on white or Asian students?
Q: Looking forward, how is the science department continuing to think about antiracism?
A: In the spring or fall, we’ll be speaking with Moses Rifkin, who’s a Physics teacher and also someone who promotes social justice in STEM. A couple of us in the Upper School department are also on a working group with colleagues from the Middle School. We’re looking to think more broadly about these topics throughout our science curriculum, from 5th through 12th grade. And we just have discussions amongst ourselves about how we can teach with this new lens.
We very much feel like it is a work in progress and probably always will be. We’re committed to continuing to learn.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.