To Make My Chemistry Classes More Welcoming, I Start by Making Students Uncomfortable

To Make My Chemistry Classes More Welcoming, I Start by Making Students Uncomfortable

Science is becoming more diverse, but to make it more welcoming we need to examine our history and not repeat it

Young woman listening to university lecture

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For the past seven years, I’ve been teaching introductory and organic chemistry to lecture halls full of ambitious students who see my courses as a means to an end—medical school or requirements for a science major. They enter the room on the first day of class with their mental checklist of objectives and expectations; they know they must buckle down to make it to the other side. Given their attention, I use this time to communicate what I feel is the most important message I can send as a scientist.

This profession is trying to becoming more diverse, and rightfully so. Yet, despite being part of an underrepresented group myself, I know that students who are, say, people of color, or identify as LGBTQ may not feel they belong in my class. No number of signs or platitudes will make them more so. Instead, I lean in the other direction—I make that first class a little uncomfortable for everyone by showing a slide with the faces of the white men whose names are on all the chemical reactions we will learn in the coming term; they see Grignard of the Grignard reaction, Claisen of the Claisen rearrangement, Markovnikov of the Markovnikov rule. I ask them to notice what is wrong with this picture and to consider why this might be, a question that is rarely asked in science courses.

Each time I have done this, the room gets quiet as expectations about “syllabus day” in chemistry class are broken.

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As a queer woman and a first-generation college student, I came through the educational system with limited institutional knowledge of academia. I know what it feels like to think you’re always behind and need to make up for it.Selfishly, I want to be part of a field that understands and empathizes with a wide range of lived experiences. I want to communicate and problem-solve with people who bring new perspectives. This next generation has the potential to bring so many of these things to the table; I want to see what they can change. I get a taste of this every time I work through a problem with a new student, and if we can convince them to persist, we will create an inclusive future that we don’t have to apologize for.

In education, we talk about a “sense of belonging” in college STEM classrooms as one of the most effective ways to motivate students from underrepresented backgrounds in science courses. Thehow” of promoting this sense of belonging is often murkier. Simply telling students that they are welcome is often incongruent with how they feel in the class. When the instructor declares, “I treat everyone the same way, and everyone has the same opportunity to do well,” I believe students who do not feel welcome and are not doing well are being gaslit out of their own experience.

For far too long the ability to engage in the powerful process of discovery has been a privilege not afforded to specific groups of people. As has been well-documented, in some cases, researchers tried to use science to prove the inferiority of these groups. As a result, the frameworks for what we know and how we know are limited to a narrow range of lived experiences, and not just in chemistry. The concepts we learn in class end up in textbooks because a certain group of people made and took credit for observations that other people were not allowed the time and space to make.

The results of this exclusion are significant. Staggering evidence of structural medical bias around race and gender can be found maternal mortality rates for Black and Indigenous women. Bias in engineering and design result in infrastructure inequality and environmental racism. The way we understand the development of the human race is influenced by the anthropologists who construct the story. By showing these examples in that first class and emphasizing them throughout the course, my students see the real-world consequences of science’s homogenous history, and why scientists like me are pushing for diversity in our fields.

Telling these stories in class feels uncomfortable, as any change in the status quo does. The awkwardness would be enough to discourage me if I didn’t get such a humbling positive response from students. Every year, I have students reach out to thank me for acknowledging their experience, for making them feel more comfortable by first making everyone uncomfortable.

What I hope to communicate is not only that everyone can feel like they belong in my class. It can be daunting to persist in so rigorous a field without seeing anyone who looks like you. What I want my students to understand is that even “If you don’t see yourself in these faces, you not only belong, but your participation is vitally important.”

At the end of the day, I know that many students will not go on to study chemistry, and many will not remember any of the reactions that I teach them a year or two after I see them last. What my students have in common is that they are entering my class with ambitions that motivate them to do hard things. They will all encounter struggle along the way, and for some of them, that struggle will be made harder because of their identity. When that struggle is validated and acknowledged by the authority figure in the room, student and instructor can work together to overcome it. Students come to my office for help without the usual apprehension or apology for “taking up my time.” We connect with each other and talk about how important making mistakes is to the learning process. When students realize that pushing their challenges not only benefits them but enriches the fields of science and medicine on the whole, then their ambition can really take root.

My teaching practice is constantly evolving. I have never taught organic chemistry the same way twice. The only thing I know I will never change is the framing on the first day of class. When I write students recommendation letters for medical school, they often cite this day as the most formative part of their STEM education experience. I believe that these students will go on to be particularly thoughtful and careful practitioners because they know the stakes and realize their impact. I want the structure of academic science to be more forgiving, more understanding and brazenly honest about inequities it perpetuates. As educators, we have the opportunity to change the way our students think about their field and their place within it. We also have the responsibility to leverage truth and authenticity to empower these future leaders to make lasting change.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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