A Diversity Experiment

Today I decided to try something new in my introductory astronomy class. I wanted to get a quick insight into what students think about diversity while in the safe haven of the classroom.

Our classroom activities have “checkpoints” interspersed throughout so students can, quite literally, have a meeting of the minds in the center of the room. Since this was the first time they encountered such a checkpoint, I set ground rules for discussions. The most important rule is that the person holding my red stuffed Angry Bird is the speaker and others in the classroom are listeners and must not interrupt the speaker. When the speaker is finished (and the speaker decides when he/she is finished), the bird is thrown to someone else. I usually ask that the speaker toss the bird to whom they think is the quietest person in the class, which leads to some interesting results. Everyone must catch the bird at least once during the checkpoint.

The first activity is designed to justify working in groups and there are specific questions from the activity I want students to discuss, but this time I interjected and asked them to discuss “diversity” and intentionally left it open ended. They assumed that I wanted them to discuss diversity within the class, and specifically working in groups on this activity. This generated some good discussion. After several speakers, I then interjected again and asked them to now address “gender diversity.” Again, this generated some excellent discussion and once again, after a few speakers, I again interjected and asked them to address “ethnic diversity.” Almost all of the discussion consisted of students stating what these terms mean to them and how they saw diversity as helpful within the context of the activity. This was all great, and I never really got the impression that students were trying to read my mind and coax them into saying anything particular and I caught myself realizing this and I thought, “This is refreshing.”

So then I decided to go further and said, “New game. The holder of the bird must call out the name of a famous scientist and throw the bird to someone else.” My prediction was that they would name white men, and unfortunately that’s exactly what happened. Einstein and Darwin were named immediately and then the pace slowed almost exponentially, with each student taking longer and longer to name someone. I was pretty shocked when two students thought and thought and said they couldn’t name ANY famous scientist. Two other students named people they thought of as social scientists (one student named Karl Marx and another named Martin Luther King, Jr.). After about six scientists had been named, I said, “Okay I’ll make this easier for you. Name a famous black scientist.” The next student immediately named Neil deGrasse Tyson and another one named George Washington Carver. Sadly, too many students caught the bird, thought for a few seconds, and threw it to someone else and admitted they didn’t know any famous black scientists. I said, “Okay I’ll make it easier for you. Name a famous woman scientist.” The next student immediately named Marie Curie, and another named Jane Goodall. Once again, the pace slowed with students taking longer and longer to name someone. More students tossed the bird to someone else this time too, admitting they couldn’t name anyone. Students began to laugh when I once again interjected. I said, “Okay let me make this really simple. Name the first African American woman in space.” One student immediately shouted “Sally Ride” with little to no reaction from anyone else. I said that Ride was white and most students seemed a bit shocked. I didn’t see that coming. Two students finally did a (clandestine) Google search and shouted “Mae Jemison.” They were surprised to learn that Jemison had actually visited Hickory several years ago.

I hope to do this activity again later in the semester to see if students can more easily name scientists in general and scientists who are not white men. Fortunately, astronomy is a nearly perfect vehicle for telling the stories of the people who got us to where we now are.