Help us to diversify and humanize biology courses!

Standard

a guest post by Project Biodiversify (www.projectbiodiversify.org @biodiversifying)

We contain multitudes. Our courses should reflect this.

We contain multitudes. Like an ecological niche, a person’s identity is composed of infinite dimensions that make up a person or group’s collective identity space (Figure 1). However, in science – a discipline that has historically valued objective and unbiased contributors – students and researchers often find it difficult to freely express their identities. Being open and valued because of our identities enhances social justice, makes us more productive, and leads to innovation. Yet, because science is embedded in a biased society, our scientific community is often unwelcoming to people from many backgrounds. Women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, and likely many other groups (that we lack data for) are marginalized or underrepresented relative to their global populations. 

Figure 1: A person’s identity, like an ecological niche, is comprised of infinite dimensions, some of which are included in this depiction of “identity space”

Who is doing science goes on to influence the research questions that are pursued and how results are framed. This affects whether marginalized and underrepresented students find science relevant to themselves, which also influences recruitment and retention. For example, biology has been weaponized against marginalized groups throughout history and, in many cases, still is today. Students that see these harmful biases may be alienated from pursuing a career in biology or doing research that is inclusive to their identity. This perpetuates the stereotype of who scientists are and what kind of work they can do, thus contributing to a cycle of exclusion (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Explicit and implicit biases act as a selective force against students from underrepresented groups (akin to stabilizing selection). The low diversity of scientist role models has created the scientist stereotype which further fuels the selective force against students from underrepresented/marginalized backgrounds through mechanisms such as stereotype threat. Made with figures modified from Western Michigan University, Fermi Lab, and Your Article Library.

We need change. 

We recognize that problems of marginalization and underrepresentation are the result of long-term and large-scale institutional discrimination and inequity. Therefore to achieve an equitable field, we need long-term and large-scale institutional changes. STEM fields are beginning to recognize this, and many conversations and initiatives have been developed to deal with these issues. 

While we continue our efforts for large-scale institutional change, there are small things educators can do to make our classrooms and labs more diverse, equitable, and inclusive to help break this exclusionary cycle. For example, to address the lack of relatable role models in classrooms, we can diversify the scientists we highlight in lectures as examples. To make our classrooms more inclusive, we can update the language we use in lectures to be both biologically accurate and non-alienating. Many educators we’ve talked to aspire to incorporate these practices, but the many constraints on time and the fear of messing up/saying the wrong thing often get in people’s way. We wanted to make it easier for instructors to incorporate a diversity of scientific role-models and updated language in teaching, so we created Project Biodiversify. 

Project Biodiversify (www.projectbiodiversify.org) is an online repository of teaching materials and methods aimed at increasing the diversity of biologists highlighted in lectures, humanizing biologists, and making biology classrooms more inclusive to students of all backgrounds, especially those from marginalized or underrepresented groups*. Below, we discuss our motivations, our resources (which we hope you use!) and ways you can get involved. We hope you dig it, we hope you get psyched, and we hope you join us!

*Wait… who “counts” as an underrepresented group in Project Biodiversify?

We define underrepresented groups to be any group of people that self-identify as underrepresented, marginalized, or oppressed according to any dimension(s) of their identity. We do not limit our definition of who counts as an underrepresented group to those defined by authorities. Groups of people know that they are marginalized, oppressed, or underrepresented before we have data to “prove” that they are.

Project Biodiversify Resources

Project Biodiversify provides teaching materials and methods to increase diversity and representation in classrooms. All of our goodies can be found on our website, www.projectbiodiversify.org. We discuss the three main dishes below.

1. Teaching materials

Many instructors want to diversify their courses, but either don’t have time to find new examples or don’t know where to look. To facilitate easy inclusion of a diverse set of biologists into classrooms worldwide, we are constructing a database of teaching slides based on the research and life experiences of biologists that self-identify as part of underrepresented group(s) in biology. Each submission includes a “research” slide that highlights the scientific contribution, a “study system” slide that shows some biologically relevant image, and a “key figure” slide which provides humanizing information on the scientist behind the work (Figure 3). Each slide comes with easy-to-use presenter notes, providing instructors with all of the info they need to know to present their slides in their lectures.

Figure 3: A schematic of the slides we build featuring biologists from underrepresented backgrounds. See the real deal at projectbiodiversify.org/examples

We need submissions!

We are seeking submissions! Our goal is to build a rich repository of teaching slides based on research by biologists from all backgrounds that spans the introductory biology curriculum. This is a lofty goal, and is why we designed our repository to be a crowd-sourced one. To share your research and life experiences and become a role model, please consider submitting. Or, to support other role models, consider nominating the work of someone else (historical or contemporary)! Check out our infographic below to learn about the submission process (Figure 4).

Many folks are excited about Project Biodiversify and use our slides in their courses, but we haven’t exactly been overrun with submissions. Here are some common questions people have before submitting, and our responses:

I want to contribute, but…

I don’t identify as being part of an underrepresented group.

No worries! If you want to participate, you can nominate a biologist from an underrepresented group and fill out the submission form based on their science. Then we’ll contact them, get consent to share slides featuring them and their research, and give them the opportunity to share about their experience in life and science. You can also make a submission about a historical biologist from an underrepresented group! 

I’m “only” a graduate student.

First of all, never say “only”! You are a hard working scientist and that is awesome. If you’ve published some of your research we would love to feature you. If you’re not ready to share about your own research, you can make a submission about someone else.

I don’t know if I’m “diverse enough.”

Says who?! A person isn’t diverse, a group is diverse. If you feel that any part of your identity is underrepresented or marginalized, that’s all that matters. If you’ve never been able to relate to an academic superior, that’s enough. If you wish you had someone to relate to, that’s enough. If just one student might benefit from hearing your story or seeing you be successful, that’s enough. 

My research isn’t “cool enough”.

Says who?! We aren’t gate keepers of science. Science is valuable wherever it is published. We only ask that your science fits into biology curriculum, and that there is some way for instructors or students to learn more about the work (e.g. link to a paper, conference abstract, etc.).

I don’t feel comfortable sharing personal information or being in the spotlight.

That’s totally understandable! We only share information that contemporary scientists consent to us sharing. We let people speak for themselves. If you don’t want to be highlighted, we won’t post information about you. If you still want to participate, you can submit information about someone else’s science or a historical scientist from an underrepresented group. 

I don’t know how my research fits into educational curriculum.

Contact us! We can chat with you and help you figure out which part(s) of your research might best fit into introductory biology curricula. 

Figure 4: An overview of the Project Biodiversify teaching slides submission process

2. Teaching methods

Project Biodiversify is also taking a deeper dive into curricular content to increase the inclusivity of science classrooms. Many biology and natural science curricula touch on topics relevant to sex, gender, sexuality, race, diseases, disabilities, and indigenous knowledge. These topics are relevant to the marginalized identities and experiences of students, and people more broadly, but are often taught in simplistic and problematic ways. Sometimes equally problematic, curricula avoid these topics as they pertain to human identities and experiences. Omissions, oversimplifications, and overgeneralizations in how these topics are taught alienates students and perpetuates harmful inaccuracies in society as a whole. It’s important for students and educators to be aware of and work to correct how we approach these topics in science. To help, we are developing a repository of pedagogical techniques that train educators in inclusive teaching practices around identity- and background-related topics. These techniques prioritize scientific accuracy and utilize the latest methods to increase student engagement and learning.

Our first effort in this arena is to inform biology educators how to approach teaching sex- and gender-related topics. We do this by providing general advice for updating definitions and language (Figure 5) and hosting pedagogical workshops – more information on that below. We hope to build on these efforts to focus on the teaching of other identity- and background-related topics, with the help of collaborators from other axes of identities and research expertise. If you have ideas, please get in touch!

Figure 5: Inclusive and accurate definitions checklist for biology terms related to sex and gender: http://www.projectbiodiversify.org/definitions

3. Invite us to give a workshop or seminar

We give workshops based on both branches of Project Biodiversify. The flavors of workshops and seminars are below. Find out more information about inviting us here

Teaching materials workshop: Submission drives

Submission drives help to expand our repository of teaching slides highlighting underrepresented biologists. The idea of a submission drive is to gather people and momentum together to support folks during the submission process. We provide list(s) of current and historical researchers from under-represented groups and answer questions that may come up while folks fill out the submission form. These workshops allow us to add examples to the repository in a short amount of time, and participants leave with tangible achievements to report for their broader impacts and CVs. 

Teaching methods workshops: inclusive and accurate methods for teaching sex

This workshop focuses on teaching sex and gender in biology in inclusive and accurate ways. We’ve given the workshop at nine national societies and universities, and counting! The workshop is typically 2.5 hours long and we cover 1) the importance of diversity/inclusion in biology 2) highlight problems with how sexual reproduction, sex determination, and sexual reproduction are typically taught regarding accuracy and inclusion, 3) summarize ways to be more inclusive and accurate in teaching these topics, and 4) provide hands on activities in which participants can work together to make examples/prompts from their classes more inclusive and accurate. 

Seminars: importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in biology

In addition to our workshops, we have also given seminars on the motivations behind Project Biodiversify. We give an overview of why we target classrooms and curricula as a place to make positive change, and discuss the two branches of Project Biodiversify (outlined above). In doing so, demonstrate how accuracy, inclusion, and efficacy go hand in hand in science curricula.

Photo from our workshop at Northern Kentucky University in 2019

Have feedback?

We value critical, constructive feedback! If you have feedback on the language we use, the content we’re providing to educators, website navigation, or anything else, please let us know! Start a conversation with us or give anonymous feedback.

About the authors & positionality statement

Project Biodiversify’s mission is to diversify and humanize the field of biology and discuss the ways that human identities and backgrounds influence our curricula and classrooms. We believe that an important part of that mission is declaring our team’s positionality.

Dr. Ash Zemenick (they/them) is the director and co-creator of Project Biodiversify and identifies as a white, able-bodied, non-binary person. Ash is a joint postdoc at Michigan State University and UC Davis. Dr. Marjorie Weber (she/her) is the co-creator of Project Biodiversify, and identifies as a white, able-bodied, cis-woman. Marjorie is an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Plant Biology. Dr. Alex Webster (she/her) is a co-leader of the “Methods” branch of the project and co-creator of our “Inclusive and accurate methods for teaching sex- and gender-related topics” workshop; she identifies as a white, able-bodied, queer woman. Alex is currently a postdoc at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

We all grew up in economically privileged and academically-supportive households. We are also all ecologists, and, as such, came to this conversation from the perspective of appreciating the diversity of life and what that can teach us about the strength of diversity and inclusivity among humans. See Our Story for more on the other members of the team. The Project Biodiversify Team is proud of the marginalized and under-represented identities that we represent, but we recognize that we do not represent anywhere near the whole spectrum of human experiences. You might have different ideas or perspectives or ways to approach these topics, and that’s important. The Project Biodiversify Team welcomes feedback and collaboration of all types.

Screen Shot 2020-01-13 at 11.37.55 AM.png

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Allison Simler-Williamson, the awesome forest ecologist and artist who designed our logo, Sarah Jones our sexual selection and pedagogy expert who has been critical to designing and giving our teaching workshops, and Aaron Slater who is our awesome intern! Finally, we are grateful to Terry McGlynn and Small Pond Science for their discourse and work on diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM and for hosting us on their site! 

One thought on “Help us to diversify and humanize biology courses!

You can leave a comment anonymously, just don't give your name or email.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s