Understanding how cells replicate and divide or learning to classify organisms by categories like kingdom and species are common lessons in any K-12 life science curriculum. But Ball State senior Jackson Miner is concerned about what some students are never taught—that they, too, can become a scientist, and that all races and genders deserve to be recognized and celebrated for their contributions to the field.
As a secondary life science education major, Miner wants to make his students excited to learn about these topics. But as a women’s and gender studies minor, he realized that much of the scientific field is rooted in the perspective of just one race and one gender.
Miner made this connection on the very first day of his Introduction to the Teaching of Science course when his professor asked the class to draw their idea of what a scientist looks like.
“Most draw ambiguous stick figures in lab coats or Albert Einstein-esque scientists with crazy hair and test tubes and a pocket protector,” Miner said. “The point of the drawing assignment is to realize who we view can and cannot be scientists. In most classrooms, there might be one or two who have drawn or mentioned female scientists, and if you are lucky, maybe a scientist of color will be mentioned.”
That simple exercise stayed with Miner, and about two years later, he decided to interview the professor—Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Rona Robinson-Hill—for his women’s and gender studies capstone paper. In it, he wrote about how science classes that focus mostly on the contributions of white men can make already challenging subjects like biology, chemistry, and physics even less approachable for students who do not fit that demographic.
“It can be difficult for minority students to want to pursue science when they have no one to model their ambitions after because all of the scientists taught within the curriculum are white and male. Within the classroom, students are going through the same injustices that are occurring outside the walls, and a cognizant classroom can present an opportunity to discuss and analyze those injustices in a safe space.”
Miner also recalled another exercise from Dr. Robinson-Hill’s course in which the class collected various measurements and compared their results, only to learn that not everyone got the same answers due to errors in reading a measurement or converting a unit.
“We discussed how important it is to provide information and assignments that are free from teacher assumptions,” he wrote in his paper. “In a classroom setting, if a teacher assumes that a student knows something they do not, and does not address it, the student could fall behind and/or miss out on important information because they do not have the foundation in place to build the necessary knowledge.”
Student Teaching During a Global Pandemic
Miner is now getting ready to begin teaching his own lessons as a student-teacher at Noblesville West Middle School, where he plans to implement both the pedagogical best practices he learned from his science education courses as well as the social-justice-oriented critical thinking he developed from the women’s and gender studies program to engage his students in the style of his mentor, Dr. Robinson-Hill.
“It was eye-opening to see how many of my deeply rooted beliefs in equity and inclusion could be integrated into the secondary science curriculum, which is often seen as a cold and dry subject. My main goals are always representation, conscious reflection, and recognition and discussion of bias. Overall, I simply hope to be able to use my understanding of the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equity to inspire students to do the same in their lives.”
Of course, Miner isn’t starting a typical student teaching experience—he is also going to be teaching during a global pandemic when the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is challenging schools to constantly reevaluate how they can keep children safe without putting their education on hold. For now, his school will be returning to primarily face-to-face instruction in the fall.
“I think it will be a day-by-day basis, and while that brings in some anxiety, it is already a brand-new experience for me, so I’m just rolling with the punches anyway!” he said.
For Miner, teaching during the era of COVID-19 also presents an opportunity to take a fresh look at the education system and scrutinize the ways classes are traditionally taught.
“This is a crazy opportunity where we can find new technology and new ways to connect and interact with students and help them interact with science. Teaching will be different than I have experienced in the past, but I hope to find new and exciting ways to do things.”
After graduating, Miner plans to start a career teaching biology and zoology, and he hopes to implement some of Dr. Robinson-Hill’s exercises in his own lesson plans, such as having students draw their idea of a scientist.
“So from a really simple and creative prompt, we can start to discuss some really deep topics and start the students off knowing that it is important to me that every student understands they can be a scientist.”
Miner notes that while it is his mission to show students from all backgrounds that they, too, can become a scientist, all fields can benefit from diversity and inclusion initiatives. He encourages every Ball State student to take a women’s and gender studies class.
“Inclusion, diversity, and advocacy are needed in every field, and even one class could give you some background and some tools on how you can make a difference.”