New grant aims to flip stereotypes about scientists, one story at a time

Three middle-school students look into a microscope

$1.1 million grant led by SF State and Foothill College will highlight diverse scientists in classrooms

Reading through her middle schooler’s science homework one day, Kimberly Tanner noticed a glaring absence: examples of women and people of color doing science. Two years later, Tanner is part of a collaborative project to diversify the scientists featured in middle and high school science lessons, funded by a $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re collaborating to change curriculum structures that continue to send the message to students that only certain types of people do science,” said Tanner, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University.

Over the next two years, students at San Francisco State and Foothill College will create hundreds of “Scientist Spotlights” — short science assignments that highlight currently practicing scientists from a variety of backgrounds. Since the spotlights also teach important course concepts, teachers can use them in their own curricula as homework assignments or replacements for textbook readings. 

The spotlights feature scientists from a diverse mix of racial and ethnic groups, sexual orientations and gender identities. They also discuss their personal lives and struggles. According to project leader Jeff Schinske’s (M.S., 2007) research, students of all backgrounds and identities connect with stories of scientists who didn’t start out interested in science. “There’s a surprisingly strong presumption that scientists come into this world with a test tube in their hand,” he said.

The idea for the spotlights grew out of Schinske’s work as a professor of biology at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. “I was just seeing all of this evidence that students need to be able to see themselves in a discipline to succeed and even to be able to learn the material,” he said. That meant the litany of examples of older, white, male scientists featured in many textbooks were discouraging to students from groups that are underrepresented in science.

Schinske and Tanner have already been working with their colleagues to integrate these lessons into biology courses at SF State, and for this grant they’ve partnered with eight middle- and high school instructors and four community college instructors to assess the spotlights’ effectiveness in a wide variety of classrooms. The Story Collider podcast and National Public Radio’s Science Friday are also collaborators and will create content for the spotlights and spread the results of the research.

One of those teaching partners is Gianne Souza, a 9th grade biology teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco. Souza has been incorporating the spotlights in her classroom since she pursued her teaching credential at SF State in 2016. “Our curriculum is already so packed,” she said. But Scientist Spotlights are designed to fit easily into a course. “Because they can be done as homework and can be linked to so many different things, they’re really easy to use and really powerful.”

After SF State and Foothill College undergrads write the spotlights, K-12 teachers across the Bay Area will incorporate them into their classrooms, using surveys to determine whether the lessons help students learn and boost their sense of belonging in science. Over the next two years the team will create an online database of Scientist Spotlights accessible by anyone.

“The database will allow science instructors from middle schools, high schools and community colleges across the country and the world to integrate diversity explicitly into the fabric of their biology courses,” said Tanner.

This project is funded by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the NIGMS or NIH.