Moving Beyond the Experiment to See Chemists Like Me: Cultural Relevance in the Organic Chemistry Laboratory

Shanina Sanders Johnson

Culturally relevant pedagogy and critical race feminism can be utilized to challenge the inequality and masculine nature of chemistry. Such an approach is needed to increase the representation of Black women in STEM and can be leveraged to create a curriculum that addresses the lived experiences of these individuals. This approach can shift the dynamics of the learning environment by allowing students to take the lead in creating knowledge and, in the case of students, seeing how other Black women experience and contribute to the field of chemistry in meaningful ways. In acknowledging the intersection of gender, race, and personal interest in connection with culturally relevant pedagogies, learning strategies have been created to engage Black women. Student interview and survey data revealed their interest and growing knowledge of the relevance of science. The information also showed that completing the culturally relevant lab activities helped students see themselves as developing scientists. Based on the response to the activities, it is believed that the intentional design of an academically challenging and inclusive curriculum will enhance students’ perception of themselves as scientists.

Sinead Younge, Danielle Dickens, Leyte Winfield, and Shanina Sanders Johnson*

Pedagogies that represent the experiences and celebrate the identities of Black women in STEM are rare. As an institution that educates and empowers Black women, Spelman College prides itself on creating curricula that allows its students to see the impact of women and culture influenced by the Black diaspora. However, in some of our chemistry courses, organic chemistry lab in particular, our faculty noticed the lack of humanity and relatable experiences in the curriculum. In contrast to the organic chemistry lecture, where we actively seek to bring in current events and/or connect the learning to students’ lives, the organic chemistry lab had a keen focus on the technical aspects of experimentation with little relatable context. Thus, we sought to include elements of gender and ethnicity into the learning content as an acknowledgement of our students’ identities. Additionally, we wanted to highlight the connections between our students and the lab curriculum to engage them with the learning materials and to demonstrate their ability to contribute to the curriculum and lead relevant discussions. With these details in mind, the organic I lab was revised with the intent of also increasing the level of inquiry in the course overall.

The lab revision process was guided by the techniques and skills that we want our students to acquire over the course of the semester. This involved modifications for some experiments and replacement of others. Modules were created to accompany a few of the experiments that would integrate culture and connect the students to the experiments. The creation of the modules was guided by culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) and also critical race feminism (CRF). In concert, these theories allowed us to intentionally enhance the cultural context of the lab activities and also acknowledge the identities of our students and the expertise they brought with them to the course. Initially, three Beyond the Experiment modules (BEM) were created. The Infrared Spectroscopy (IR) BEM allowed students to explore applications of IR outside of the identification of functional groups in organic compounds. The Alternative Pain Reliever BEM accompanied the Synthesis of Aspirin experiment and allowed students to explore alternative or complementary pain relief in their family or communities. Lastly, the Dyes in Your Everyday Life BEM allowed students to reflect on dyes in their personal lives and in different industries.

In acknowledging students’ identities, we also thought it was important to celebrate Black chemists and allow the students to identify role models in chemistry and/or STEM. The “Chemist Like Me” module contributed to this goal by inviting alumna from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to discuss their careers in corporate America via a panel. They discussed how the training provided at Spelman supported them in their endeavors, addressed challenges they faced as Black women in STEM, and shared vignettes from their personal lives. In preparation for the event, students created profiles of Black women in STEM and viewed videos featuring Percy Julian that focused on his chemistry achievements and the challenges he faced as a Black chemist. Student feedback via a survey confirmed that most of the students felt the panel contributed to their sense of science identity. Based on data from student interviews and surveys, the new activities and modules provided some validation for students’ identities and experiences in a supportive learning environment. They were able to lead discussions about chemistry, share personal stories, and engage with the learning materials in a new way. Overall, this work has emphasized the importance of creating inclusive learning environments to nurture students’ burgeoning science identity while also encouraging them to value the knowledge they bring into the classroom by way of their experiences, backgrounds, and interests.

This work is funded in part by the National Science Foundation Award Nos. 1332575 and HRD-1912385. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies listed


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