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class and privilege in science
January 25, 2013 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Lack of resources, benign discouragement from well meaning adults, active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers: a classroom scientist discusses things that kill opportunity for inner city youth.

"But apparently, kids of her ilk were not expected to place. I got amazing push back from the honors biology teacher. She wasn’t forth coming about her placing, held out on giving the young lady her ribbon, and threw away her poster presentation and notebook at the end of the school fair. (Incidentally, an original notebook is a major part of the rubric for regional science fairs)."

The blog entry was inspired by a field guide to privilege in marine science - some reasons why we lack diversity.
posted by el io (24 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, thank you for this. I'm always stymied by people who believe that gosh darn it if you just try hard enough you can pull yourself by your bootstraps. It's nice to have even more evidence that it just isn't the case, and that we need to be actively involved in changing it.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:23 PM on January 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


I ran an inner-city youth group in Hartford, CT for almost three years. It's not just science. Sometimes it's education, period. I worked with a number of kids who were encouraged to drop out of high school by teachers (and sometimes even family members) because it was "easier" than confronting the bigger systemic challenges against them. The article gets at these issues, of course, but I've come to believe that you're winning a battle of sorts if you can keep kids enrolled to begin with. Just being in school and failing isn't enough, of course, but I think the more layers and forces we recognize in this challenge, the better.
posted by mykescipark at 12:26 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I got amazing push back from the honors biology teacher. She wasn’t forth coming about her placing, held out on giving the young lady her ribbon, and threw away her poster presentation and notebook at the end of the school fair.

At what point in your career as an educator do you get up out of bed, brush your teeth, and say to yourself, "You know, I want to be the villain in a Hallmark Channel movie. I want to just be completely evil in an unexciting way, and have everyone hate my face forever."

Because everyone knows what you've done and why, Honors-teacher, all the kids know when and how and who with you're playing favorites. So it was in my day, and I'd expect now doubly so in the age of SMS and iChat.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:43 PM on January 25, 2013 [39 favorites]


Thanks for sharing this. I do some corporate diversity consulting and stories like this are very powerful when talking about access to different opportunities.
posted by shoesietart at 12:44 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've definitely seen this happen and it makes my blood boil.

At the last park I worked in our summer high-school interns were two girls from The Bayview in San Francisco. I remember asking one of them what she was hoping to go to college for and she told me that she wanted to be a veterinarian. I was asking her where she hoped to study, what she was doing to prepare, etc and basically what came out of it was that she had no idea how competitive veterinary programs were or how hard they were to get into and that her teachers/counselors had just been steering her toward "vet tech" type schools and programs...basically trade school types of places. Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a vet tech, but that was really not what she was looking to do and was completely being steered in a direction that she wasn't trying to go in. She was a smart girl, and clearly motivated since her internship had nothing to do with her school, it was done independently through a non-profit that she had to seek out and apply for and compete with other students from all over the Bay Area for. I tried to give her as much advice and guidance as I could during the couple of months she was working with me, but I really hate the fact that I seemed to be the only "mentor" in her life who was doing so.

I spent my childhood in a place not very different from Bayview in terms of demographics, poverty, and crime and had I not tested well very early and been placed in all sorts of "gifted" schools and programs, I'm sure I would have been in a position much like hers. This shit makes me crazy mad.
posted by primalux at 12:55 PM on January 25, 2013 [13 favorites]


Really great science projects, the one that place in the city-county wide fairs require money to buy supplies — money that most of my students simply did not have. Although completing a science fair project is required for a grade, the school does not provide resources to get the project done. In fact, I don’t know of any public school that does that. Do you?

I hadn't really thought about this before, and it bothers me that I hadn't.
posted by asperity at 1:09 PM on January 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


I've judged science faires saw the same sorts of factors at work there. The one that really enraged me was a school where I was paired up with a teacher who was clearly suffering from cognitive dissonance from trying to fit research scientist in her head at the same time as 6'4" dude with a beard and foot long pony tail. We had to judge several entries - the two that really stood out were one where someone posed a question and then used things you can get at a modern grocery store - you know, the same resources Charles fucking Darwin had - to find an answer vs. someone who ordered official stuff from a scientific supply house and then kind of noodled around a poorly defined question. It was painfully clear to me which was the superior entry and equally clear that the teach I was paired with couldn't disagree more. It was like psychic warfare to get equal scores on the two, and on the way home I found myself wondering if the teacher went back and changed them after I left.

The punchline to this is that, rather than the inner city of St. Louis, my story takes place in a St. Louis West County school district that is allegedly just awesomesauce and is busy turning out the leaders of tomorrow. (If you ever find yourself wondering where folks like Todd Akin come from, I could have casually walked from the site of this adventure to his house.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:13 PM on January 25, 2013 [23 favorites]


asperity: I'll certainly be keeping this essay in mind next time I hear about an amazing science fair project makes the news (not to detract from those kids that do amazing science, but to realize how many more kids could be contributing to the world if given the opportunity).
posted by el io at 1:15 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


At what point in your career as an educator do you get up out of bed, brush your teeth, and say to yourself, "You know, I want to be the villain in a Hallmark Channel movie.

If I favorited this as hard as I want to, they'd need dental records to ID your body!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:15 PM on January 25, 2013 [12 favorites]


cognitive dissonance from trying to fit research scientist in her head at the same time as 6'4" dude with a beard and foot long pony tail.

really? These days it seems more surprising when a research scientist (if male) doesn't have a ponytail and/or beard.
posted by jb at 2:09 PM on January 25, 2013


You know that bit in field of dreams, "I think you had two fifties and then a seventies"? Some people don't stop at two.

And really that's kind of where her head was - science was all about a 1950's movie scientist - heroic and noble with chiseled features and a white lab coat and a lab full of equipment all neatly labeled "product of the future". If you showed her Feynman's essay on the Princeton cyclotron that might have enlightened her, but I think it's just as likely to have elicited a "what does he know" response.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:19 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


This was a really nice read after a Friday afternoon 5th grade science lesson in a public school in Oakland. It made me think about all of the students in my class and how I can reach every single one with the joy that science brings.
posted by ruhroh at 5:01 PM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


things that kill opportunity for (poor) inner city youth:

capitalism
institutionalized racism/classism
the drug war
school funding tied to property taxes
lack of after school enrichment activities
lack or resources
generational poverty
etc.
etc.


But if you read David Brooks' column in today's NYT he claims that the meritocracy is winning (against Barack Obama's "redistributive" policies that favor the weak). HA! what an idiot! And by HA!, I truly mean (T_T), but sometimes I try to cover my sadness with humor.
posted by nikoniko at 5:23 PM on January 25, 2013 [8 favorites]



The punchline to this is that, rather than the inner city of St. Louis, my story takes place in a St. Louis West County school district that is allegedly just awesomesauce and is busy turning out the leaders of tomorrow.


It's the old education versus credentialing issue. As an alum of a Chicago high school (Chicago proper, that is), I saw first hadn just how supposedly deficient schools were still filled with kids who not only were capable of being educated, but were actually being educated, and then disadvantaged with a school transcript that has the wrong school name on the top, while suburban school systems were just coasting along.

Mind you, there are people out there who are perfectly okay with this. When a school district hires detectives to ferret out nonresidents kids, it's not because they want to save on the expense of the occasional kid planting his butt in a classroom. It's because they want to protect the privilege of their school's transcript not going to the unworthy.
posted by ocschwar at 7:03 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


I attempted to tag this as ' Fantastic Post' somehow the menu bar and I did not connect correctly.
This is a fantastic post!
This scientist who wrote the article really nailed it!
My son did a science fair project. It was about how well different kinds of bracing might help a building survive a major earthquake.
I worked at a pretty awful call-center job, but we had an Erector set, some tiny human figures ( to add drama..) and some Legos. We did not have money or tools to make a shake table, so we invited people to shake our three buildings.
No prize, but it was a popular display.
We went to the BIG Science Fair a month later. We had No Idea!
I noticed that the rankings were like this:

Public School kids did sort of o.k.
Catholic School kids did quite well.
The winners however were Home-Schooled.
In this area at that time, you had to have some resources to home-school your kid.
Their projects were very polished, and we wanted to try again the next year with a better project.
Things didn't work out that way.
My son could have done science. If you don't have the money and other resources to foster that ambition early, it won't happen.
The gang situation and the drug situation in poor neighborhoods are definately a factor. Some science can only be learned outdoors.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:43 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Katjusa Roquette: The winners however were Home-Schooled.

They really should just compete in another division. An adult division. Because you know who really did most of those projects.

And if not. it's probably pretty easy to win when you have one teacher who can suspend class for a week to give you time for the project, can devote all of their time to helping you win, and is willing to contribute money to helping you win.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:24 PM on January 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


In my occasional work around educational testing, I often encounter women who tell me they're not qualified for STEM jobs that I know they're perfectly capable of. I am terribly disappointed when I hear them tell me about how they are unworthy, and I can tell it is something that was impressed upon them by someone who had authority over them, some teacher or parent or societal force somewhere. I want to tell them, you are worth much more, you are capable of so much more. But I don't know any way to tell them, without it possibly sounding like I am condemning them for making poor life choices. I can only make it worse, and make them feel worse about themselves. I wish I could do something.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:15 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Although completing a science fair project is required for a grade, the school does not provide resources to get the project done. In fact, I don’t know of any public school that does that. Do you?

I took a Computer Science class when I was in high school. It was offered through a sort of magnet school... thing called the Career Enrichment Center (CEC for short) that served the entire district; it bused kids from all of the schools in the city there. It offered three sessions; CS was the one that was after school-- I went to the school it was next to; other kids got there by bus, so they didn't have a class at the end of the day (no 6th period). CEC started as the place in the city that had all of the computers, since not all of the schools had the resources to do that. Now, all the schools had computer labs, but CEC still offered all the classes that there weren't enough resources to hold in every individual school-- Asian languages, forensics, nursing programs with work placement, etc.

Anyway, we did science fair in that CS class and they provided the computers and I don't remember if we had to bring our own boards and stuff (we might have) but we did certainly get all of the resources to do the project itself in the class. And we didn't really work on that at home; it was a 2 1/2 hour class that ran Monday through Thursday, so we had time to do all of the work on the computers there without needing computers at home, so if we didn't have access to that stuff outside classtime we'd have been OK. There were still resources you needed to go to CEC-- you couldn't take the bus home from your original HS even if the bus did take you from CEC back there after class, since it was nearly 6 PM by the time you got home, stuff like that. But that's one situation where your science fair projects are provided for by the school, and as a bonus that school is one that the entire city has access to.

This isn't to negate any of the points in the article or the ones other people in the thread have made at all. Most kids don't have opportunities to go to places like CEC and most school systems don't spread money out evenly among all the schools and have programs accessible to multiple schools like that. I was glad I got that opportunity and think it'd be great if more people had it, and I think it's a damn shame they don't.
posted by NoraReed at 1:18 AM on January 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


"she had no idea how competitive veterinary programs were or how hard they were to get into and that her teachers/counselors had just been steering her toward "vet tech" type schools and programs...basically trade school types of places."

Actually that doesn't seem like a bad idea on its face. It seems to me that having some training and practical experience could be a leg up in getting into a competitive vet school. Also, it's an excellent way to find out if you're suited for that type of work or if it suits you. My wife works at a veterinary office and one of her coworkers is following that path (working as a vet tech and going to school).
posted by MikeMc at 7:32 AM on January 26, 2013


Yeah, I have to agree with the vet tech advice. Vet school is harder to get into than med school
posted by ocschwar at 9:16 AM on January 26, 2013


I remember my middle school science fair, and how so much of it was about presentation, i.e. heavy posterboard and stick-on letters and other things you had to buy. And I vividly remember a classmate's entry, which was something like "how does radiation affect plants?" Her experiment was growing seeds that had been exposed to different levels of radiation - she didn't irradiate them herself, of course, she ordered them from somewhere. I thought this was the stupidest project in the entire science fair, because (1) no duh irradiated seeds don't grow I thought you were in the gifted class, (2) what the fuck did you actually do. As I recall she won a prize from that store-bought experiment.

I didn't really care about winning in the science fair - it was mandatory and I hated projects and I did enough to get an okay grade - but our teachers had insisted on originality and coming up with our own hypothesis and methods, and I spent a lot of time trying to think of something unique and interesting. It didn't even cross my mind that there were places that sold ready-made science fair stuff.

Come to think of it, a lot of the projects I did in elementary and middle school were things I tried to do entirely on my own, pitted against much slicker-looking projects that very clearly had a parent's help or a store-bought element. No wonder I hated doing them.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:03 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Actually that doesn't seem like a bad idea on its face. It seems to me that having some training and practical experience could be a leg up in getting into a competitive vet school.

Oh I totally agree, and we actually talked about her doing something like that. What they were all telling her was definitely more along the lines of "You should just be a vet tech instead. It's basically the same thing!"
posted by primalux at 11:31 AM on January 26, 2013


Though I don't doubt for a moment that everything described in it is true and distressingly common, my own experience with local science fairs has been quite different, and much more positive. While I'm not expert, I've worked as an outside science-fair tutor for three schools, and I've judged a dozen school and district science fair competitions. In every case, I've been astonished at the extent to which those involved seems to be doing everything they can for their disadvantaged students.

I'm used to taking on the role of the crazy radical in almost any professional setting, and am usually the person heatedly defending race and gender based affirmative action and class considerations. I went into my first science fair gig expecting to have to fight to include access to resources and parent involvement as items for consideration. I was amazed to find that everyone was operating with more or less the same goals: judges, fair administrators, and especially teachers. If anything, I often found myself in the bad-cop role, arguing that even taking into account extenuating circumstances, some projects couldn't in good conscience receive a high score. (I'm willing to give a lot of bonus points for kids who do things on their own with no money, but if your data doesn't support your conclusions and, when interviewed, you can't come up with a thought experiment that would do a better job, bonus points aren't enough.) Occasionally the engineer's son with a $1000 project involving interstate travel and custom machining does win, but people really do work hard to pick out the kids who've done things without help. I don't think I've judged a school fair without at least one teacher pointing out the hardships that a particular student faced in completing a project.

Of course, this isn't enough to solve the underlying problem. Even if teachers go to bat for their disadvantaged kids, and even if judges of good will give unofficial hardship points, it's still true that the kids without money and outside guidance find it hard to actually do exciting projects. (As the child of a working-class single mother, I remember meticulously peeling paper letters off of poster boards so that they could be reused the following year. Those boards cost a lot less than I spent on drinks at dinner tonight. And I had a hell of a lot of advantages compared to many kids.) It's also true that they face decades of decisions in which their short-term needs are best served by not choosing a STEM path. Especially the S&M bits. They also face an endless series of unofficial and unconscious biases on the part of those in power that make it harder to break into those fields at every level.

But, at least in several mixed-income, relatively liberal urban schools, teachers and administrators really do seem to be doing their best against impossible odds, and a lot of them are doing everything they can to use science fairs to engage those students who are least likely to succeed in science classes. Finding some sort of outside funding for projects would be fantastic, and there's no question role-model engagement and advising is a great thing. But, a lot of teachers are already doing their best.
posted by eotvos at 12:21 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I worked in a bar teachers at rich private schools drank in and they all seemed to feel guilty that poorer children didn't have access to the same opportunities. I kept trying to tell them it wasn't their personal fault: i was very struck by their public service attitude.
posted by maiamaia at 1:44 PM on January 27, 2013


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