Purpose: Students discuss diversity in STEM fields and analyze how well diversity is presented in science textbooks. Part of the discussion will center on the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry, which was won by two women. In the second part of the activity, students will research and create a presentation about the discoveries and achievements of early women in science-related fields to gain some perspective about diversity in STEM fields.
Procedural overview: Before beginning this activity, teachers will briefly introduce the students to the meaning of diversity and discuss whether STEM fields are diverse.Ask the students how involved they think women and people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds have been in STEM fields over time. Students will read the online Science News article “College biology textbooks still portray a world of white scientists,” in preparation for analyzing the level of diversity presented in their own textbooks. A version of the story, “Biology textbooks don’t reflect the field’s diversity,” appears in the September 26, 2020 issue of Science News.
Next, have students review their textbooks for mentions of researchers. The students should calculate and record the proportion of men and women scientists as well as the proportion of scientists who are white and scientists who are from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. After they read the online Science News article “Gene-editing tool CRISPR wins the chemistry Nobel,” have students discuss how this discovery might be mentioned in future science textbooks. A version of the story, “2020 Nobel laureates announced,” appears in the November 7, 2020 issue of Science News.
Finally, have pairs or small groups of students choose and research an early woman in a science-related field. Ask each group to prepare a presentation about its chosen person and her scientific contributions for the class.
Want to make it a virtual lesson? This activity can be conducted in person or remotely. Provide the students with links to the online Science News articles. For the textbook analysis, have student groups send their results to you to be added to the class table, or they can create the class table in a shared document. For the presentations, ask the student groups to create presentations to show during the streamed class. Students should share their screens during presentations.
Approximate class time: 2 class periods (1 for discussion and research and 1 for reports)
Directions for teachers:
Diversity can be described as differences within a group of people resulting from demographic characteristics, cultural identities and ethnicities, and training and expertise. Representing diversity in STEM fields is important because students are more likely to envision themselves in those fields when they see people who look like them. Encouraging diversity has the potential to strengthen science when people from different backgrounds and varied experiences enter the field.
Consider teaching this activity with other educators. Include STEM and social studies and history teachers. Assign “College biology textbooks still portray a world of white scientists” and “Gene-editing tool CRISPR wins the chemistry Nobel” to the students before the first class.
Class discussion about diversity
Ask the students to answer the following questions.
1. What is the problem highlighted in the online Science News article “College biology textbooks still portray a world of white scientists,” and what is a proposed solution?
The problem highlighted is that modern college biology textbooks do not represent the diversity of the biology student body well. Including more contemporary examples of research done by people of diverse backgrounds was a proposed solution.
2. How do you define diversity in general and in STEM fields?
This answer will depend on the student’s personal life experience and will change from student to student.
3. How diverse do you think STEM fields are now compared with the past, and how is that diversity presently being represented?
This answer will depend on the student’s personal life experience and will change from student to student.
4. Name one factor that would encourage you to pursue a STEM career.
Students answers will vary, but see what patterns emerge from their answers.
Analyzing diversity in science textbooks
Assign pairs or small groups of students to review chapters in their science textbooks to look for scientists mentioned in the text or depicted in the illustrations. Remind students to check for full names because discoveries are often referenced by scientists’ last names. For example, the Hershey-Chase experiment, which confirmed that DNA carries genetic information, was performed by Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase. Have the students tally and record the total number of male and female scientists, as well as the number of white scientists and scientists of color, in the table found in the Diversity in Science worksheet. Using those numbers, each group should calculate the percentages for the given categories. Students must know the total number of scientists in their chapter to determine the percentages. The student groups can then combine their chapter totals in a class table. These numbers can be used to calculate representation (as a percentage) for each category in the entire textbook. Have the class compare its results with those reported in the article.
Class discussion about the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry
After the students read “Gene-editing tool CRISPR wins the chemistry Nobel,” have the class discuss the broader role of women in STEM, as well as how the important work done by researchers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier may be described in future textbooks.
1. Two women make up the team that discovered CRISPR. When do you think women started playing a major role in STEM and why?
Answers will vary based on students’ prior experiences, but students may look to the list of women Nobelists for ideas. In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. In fact, she received two; the first was in physics and the second, which she received in 1911, was in chemistry. Other women have had their scientific discoveries recognized with Nobels and other awards. Although there have been women scientists for centuries, it was not common for girls and women to receive an education in the sciences. As their educational opportunities improved, more women entered the STEM fields in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
2. How do you think future textbooks will describe CRISPR? How will that treatment compare with the discussions of other accomplishments in your textbook?
Answers will vary based on students’ individual experiences, but students should provide evidence based on how other discoveries are discussed in their textbooks.
3. How do you expect future textbooks and news organizations to represent diversity in STEM?
This answer will vary based on students’ prior experiences. However, students should try to use the articles they’ve read to support their answers.
Research and report on women in STEM
Conclude this activity with research on early women in science-related fields. From the list included in this activity, assign a different era to each pair or small group of students. Ask students to select a woman from that period and research her contributions. Students will describe those contributions in presentations during the next class period.
If students cannot find enough information on one woman, they can choose two women from the same era. Remind students that it is acceptable to start with Wikipedia, but that they should then search for more authoritative sources to verify information.
Students should answer the following questions in their reports.
1. Who is your person, when and where did she live and what did she do?
2. What resources helped her succeed?
3. What challenges did she face in both her work and in communicating her results?
4. In what ways was she typical of other scientists of her era?
5. Why do you think you may not have heard of this person before? For example, was her contribution overlooked; did authorities object to her work; did another person receive the credit?
6. How do you think her career might have progressed if she were active in her field now?
7. The first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901. If the Nobel Prize had existed when this scientist was alive, do you think her work would have been recognized? Why or why not?
Early women in STEM
Before 900 CE
Theano of Crotone, mathematician
Aglaonice of Thessaly, astronomer
Mary the Prophetess alchemist and chemist
Hypatia, astronomer and mathematician
Cleopatra the Alchemist, chemist
Aspasia the Physician, physician
901 to 1500 CE
Hildegard of Bingen, natural historian
Zulema L’Astròloga, astronomer
Guillemette du Luys, surgeon
Peretta Peronne, surgeon
Keng Hsien-Seng, alchemist
Mariam al-Asturlabi, astronomer
Dobrodeia of Kiev, physician
Trota of Salerno, physician
Adelle of the Saracens, physician
1501 to 1600 CE
Isabella Cortese, alchemist
Loredana Marcello, botanist
Caterina Vitale, pharmacist and chemist
Sophia Brahe, horticulturalist, astronomer and chemist
Catherine de Parthenay, mathematician
Agatha Streicher, physician
Tan Yunxian, physician
1601 to 1700 CE
Louise Boursier, midwife
Martine Bertereau, mineralogist
Maria Cunitz, astronomer
Marie Meurdrac, chemist and alchemist
Margaret Cavendish, scientist
Marguerite de la Sablière, mathematician
Jeanne Dumée, astronomer
Elisabeth Hevelius, astronomer
Maria Clara Eimmart, astronomer
Maria Sibylla Merian, naturalist and entomologist
Agnes Block, horticulturalist
Elisabeth of the Palatinate, mathematician
Eleanor Glanville, entomologist
Mary Somerset, botanist
Justine Siegemund, physician
Jane Sharp, midwife
Marie Crous, mathematician
1701 to 1800 CE
Wang Zhenyi, astronomer
Maria Margaretha Kirch, astronomer
Laura Bassi, physicist
Émilie du Châtelet, mathematician and physicist
Eva Ekeblad, agronomist
Jane Colden, botanist
Anna Morandi Manzolini, anatomist
Nicole-Reine Lepaute, astronomer
Geneviève Thiroux d’Arconville, anatomist
Claudine Picardet, chemist, mineralogist and meteorologist
Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier, chemist
Elizabeth Fulhame, chemist
Caroline Herschel, astronomer
Margaret Bryan, natural philosopher
1801 to 1850 CE
Orra White Hitchcock, botanist and scientific illustrator
Huang Lü, astronomer
Lady Hester Stanhope, archaeologist
Sophie Germain, mathematician and physicist
Mary Anning, paleontologist
Elisabetta Fiorini Mazzanti, botanist
Jeanne Villepreux-Power, marine biologist
Mary Somerville, mathematician, astronomer and science writer
Etheldred Benett, geologist and paleontologist
Ada Lovelace, mathematician and computer scientist
Maria Mitchell, astronomer
Margaretta Morris, entomologist
Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, science educator
Marie-Anne Libert, botanist
1851 to 1900 CE
Kadambini Ganguly, physician
Rupa Bai Furdoonji, physician and anesthetist
Marie Durocher, obstetrician
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, physician
Rebecca Cole, physician
Josephine Silone Yates, chemist
Florence Nightingale, statistician and nurse
Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn, astronomer
Katharine Murray Lyell, botanist
Ellen Swallow Richards, environmental chemist and industrial engineer
Julia Lermontova, chemist
Mary Treat, naturalist
Agnes Pockels, chemist
Mary Emilie Holmes, geologist
Dorothea Klumpke, astronomer
Christine Ladd-Franklin, psychologist, logician and mathematician
Florence Bascom, geologist
Margaretta Palmer, astronomer
Marion Bidder, physiologist
Katharine Foot, cytologist and zoologist
Marcia Keith, physicist
Edith Anne Stoney, medical physicist
Emily Conover. “Black hole revelations win the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics.” Science News. October 6, 2020.
Susan Dominus. “Women scientists were written out of history. It’s Margaret Rossiter’s lifelong mission to fix that.” Smithsonian. October 2019.
Women in science – a historical perspective, from the Royal Society of Chemistry
Pioneering women in STEM, from the National Science Foundation
Racially expansive STEM histories – resources, PDF from Math for America Project