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)

Supplies:

Paper

Pencils

Diversity in Science student worksheet

Internet access

Directions for teachers:

Background

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.

The setup

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

Peseshet, physician

Tapputi, chemist

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

Additional resources

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

Sign up if you’re interested in receiving free Science News magazines plus educator resources next school year. The Society for Science’s Science News in High Schools program serves nearly 5,000 public high schools across the United States and worldwide.

Learn More