University Study Finds Efforts to Make Science Relevant to Diverse Students Create Divisions

A researcher at the University of Kansas has found that efforts to make science education relevant to diverse populations inadvertently create divisions. The study examines a teaching practice common in United States urban schools serving immigrant groups in the United States and colonial schools in the Philippines in the early 1900s.

According to the study, in the beginning of the 20th century, students in colonial schools in the Philippines were regularly given questionnaires to fill out about their home lives and conditions of cleanliness. The data from these surveys was used to justify the segregation of students within American schools and to argue that Filipino residents were not hygienic or knowledgable enough to be U.S. citizens. Today, similar practices of assessing local needs and enlisting students to promote healthy habits still exist, but they are offered as ways of recognizing diversity and empowering youth.

Today, topics that focus on diabetes and obesity in science classrooms are often targeted at Hispanic, African-American, and American Indian students in attempt to apply science to a problem assumed to carry personal relevance. Students are often asked to keep food diaries and to come up with projects to share nutritional advice with their family and community. These practices, while not as direct as the hygiene surveys in colonial Philippines, attribute health problems to individual choices and divide students into those who are deemed ready for a general chemistry or anatomy lab from those who need to apply the laboratory work to correct problems in their personal lives.

“Ironically, reforms intended to make science relevant to students of color are often housed in lower tracks that restrict access to college preparatory coursework,” lead researcher Kathryn Kirchgasler said. “At the same time, the presumed distinction between relevance and rigor also does a disservice to those in the higher track, who tend to receive more decontextualized science instruction. Neither track really gives students a chance to examine the scientific and sociopolitical complexities of issues like health disparities, food justice, or climate change.”

The researchers suggest that teachers should reframe their practices so that educational and health disparities are not thought of as individual gaps to remediate but as sociopolitical phenomena. They believe that this may help to discourage racial and socioeconomic issues in the classroom and promote diversity.

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