Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

March 2017

Rethinking STEM education during Black History Month

The underrepresentation of black students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is linked more strongly to structural issues than to family and community issues, according to Sherick Hughes, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). He studies links between racial biases and underrepresentation of minority students in STEM education.

Hughes spoke on “Rethinking the Crisis in Black STEM Education” during the Black History Month Observance (see sidebar) at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which shares a campus with NIEHS. EPA organizers invited NIEHS staff to attend the Feb. 16 event.

“The data suggest that the largest effect sizes are not from what’s wrong with black people, but [from] what’s wrong with the structures within which black people matriculate into schools and go into sciences,” said Hughes, who is an associate professor of education.

The NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED), directed by Ericka Reid, Ph.D., is aimed at helping counteract those structures. Goal 9 of the NIEHS Strategic Plan prioritizes activities to inspire and train a diverse and well-trained cadre of scientists, and a variety of OSED programs support that goal.

Coping strategies take a toll

According to Hughes, biases can be explicit, which means operating on a conscious level, or implicit, which means operating unconsciously. Implicit bias may lead to microaggressions, or indirect discrimination, such as expressing surprise when a young black man walks into an advanced calculus class. The strategies students use to cope with microaggressions take a toll, which may lead students to switch from STEM programs to more diverse majors.

For example, Hughes told of a black student who was accused of cheating because he outperformed classmates. When he defended himself, the teacher concluded he must be a genius. The student accepted that as a way out and began pretending he did not have to study, when in fact he was working very hard.

“The black genius narrative kept the faculty member from accusing [him] of cheating,” Hughes said. “Hard work is one frame, but there’s a frame of acceptance and rejection that goes around that and determines how far your hard work will take you.”

Institutional responses to structural challenges

Students who are the first in their family to attend college may have fewer family and social networks to help them land crucial internships and job interviews. Hughes encouraged institutional efforts, such as the North Carolina Mathematics and Science and Education Network, that help overcome structural challenges.

Another example is the NIEHS Scholars Connect Program, which offers mentored research, and professional and personal development opportunities, to undergraduates. “The program is designed to help participants make informed decisions about their educational choices and career path,” Reid said. “The environmental health sciences are so interdisciplinary that there is room for everyone — it depends on interests and passions.”

Implicit bias cuts both ways

Research by Scott Page, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan, confirms that diversity strengthens business and research teams. And yet, Hughes noted, studies by McArthur Fellow Jennifer Richeson, Ph.D., from Yale University and others show that individuals with high racial bias, when paired with someone of another race, experience a decline in overall cognitive performance.

Richeson’s functional MRI (fMRI) research suggests that may be partly due to the extra effort required for their brains to deal with those biases while accomplishing tasks.

Tools for change

Implicit and explicit biases are habits of mind, Hughes suggested, and habits can be changed. The Harvard Implicit Association Test, publicly available through Project Implicit, is the most popular of several available tools to help uncover biases.

Patricia Devine, Ph.D., from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, published results of a successful intervention in 2013. “People who received the intervention showed dramatic reductions in implicit race bias,” the authors wrote. “Our results raise the hope of reducing persistent and unintentional forms of discrimination that arise from implicit bias.”

Citation: Patricia G. Devine PG, Forscher PS, Austin AJ, Cox WTL. 2012. Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. J Exp Soc Psychol 48(6):1267–1278.


Kenneth Olden

During Black History Month, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) recognized National Institutes of Health (NIH)-based researchers who achieved firsts in their fields. Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., served NIEHS from 1991 to 2005. (Photo courtesy of NIMHD)

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