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Getting past the gatekeepers in science & math

Published: Aug 13th, 2008 •• Category: Press Releases

When people say the word scientist, what comes to mind? White coats and glasses? Beakers and test-tubes? A white man with graying temples, working in a lab?

How about a young African-American woman?

Too many people never think of that last image. And according to three researchers at the University of Florida’s College of Education, that lack of vision is a big problem — not just for black women, but for the nation’s future.


If you ask an African-American girl in middle school to draw a picture of a scientist, chances are she’ll draw a white man with a long coat and a beard, said Associate Professor Rose Pringle. Somewhere along the line we have lost too many of these children, and they are not being made aware that they can be successful in the sciences.

Pringle, Associate Professor Thomasenia Adams and Assistant Professor Cirecie West-Olatunji are co-investigators on a study “ funded by a $439,000 grant from the National Science Foundation “ that is looking at the way schools subtly turn African-American girls away from careers in science, mathematics, and other technical subjects.

The project comes on the heels of a pilot study in which the UF researchers interviewed a number of African-American girls on their attitudes about science and mathematics. That study found that most of the girls did not see themselves as future scientists, and they adopted that attitude largely because the people around them didn’t see them as scientists either. What’s more, the girls were well aware that they were being pushed in a certain direction.

Educators are constantly asking, how do we win their hearts and minds, how do we get these kids interested in science, West-Olatunji said. Yet, in practice, it seems that counselors and teachers are still playing a gate-keeping role.

The researchers say counselors and teachers send out subtle “ but very clear — messages about their expectations. For instance, when a black student expresses an interest in higher education, a counselor might suggest community college, rather than a four-year college.

The problem doesn’t start or stop in the classroom, the researchers say. After all, students spend most of their time outside the classroom, in a world that sends kids a million little messages about gender and race. For the most part, those messages aren’t telling black girls they should be scientists. In fact, the researchers say, even the girls’ teachers may doubt their own role in the scientific and quantitative world.

We’re not laying the blame on teachers, Adams said. We ought to ask ourselves: does the teacher in the science classroom even perceive herself as a scientist?

The NSF grant will allow the researchers to spend three additional years in North Central Florida schools, surveying parents, observing teachers and counselors in action, and looking for those crucial moments when adults send messages about their expectations for their students. They will also talk with students and analyze how those students internalize the message they’re getting from the people around them.

The bottom line is, people know how to send positive messages and they know how to send negative messages, whether these messages are spoken or not, Adams said. We have to decide to send positive messages to African American girls in relation to mathematics.

For a good example of what African-American women can offer to the world of research, you need look no farther than the researchers on the NSF study, all three are black women who do research for a living. Formerly the director of graduate studies for the college, Thomasenia Adams is an award winning teacher of future math educators, whose research on innovative math teaching methods has been published widely. Rose Pringle is one of the state’s most respected science education professors, well-known for her own educational research as well as her efforts to turn prospective science teachers into researchers in their own right. Cirecie-West Olatunji is a pioneer in the field of multicultural counseling, known for her research on the counseling needs of marginalized populations both in the U.S. and abroad.

The grant comes as the NSF and other national organizations are searching for new ways to encourage students of all backgrounds to enter the sciences, technological fields and mathematics “ sometimes known as the STEM disciplines. In recent years, increasing numbers of college-bound students seem to have turned away from STEM majors and toward other fields, and many educators fear a coming brain drain in the hard sciences.

Long before those concerns arose, however, diversity was a problem in STEM fields.

For African Americans, and especially girls, the crisis is not coming, it’s already here, said Pringle.