By Ed Brennen
While teaching a section on waves in her Chemistry I course last semester, Asst. Teaching Prof. Suzanne Young took a moment to tell her students about someone not mentioned in their textbook: the late nuclear physicist Fred Begay. Also known as Clever Fox, he was a lasers expert of Navajo and Ute descent who went to work for the Los Alamos National Laboratories in 1971 and conducted experiments with NASA.
A few weeks later, during a discussion of enzymes and receptors in binding, Young introduced her students to a more contemporary scientist also not found in their textbook: Tanya Latty, a Black entomologist at the University of Sydney in Australia who works on the chemistry of slime mold, which uses receptors to “see” light without eyes and “smell” food without a nose.
By creating five-minute biographies such as these on Black, brown and indigenous scientists and then weaving them into her chemistry courses throughout the semester, Young hopes to better connect students to the STEM fields by showing them just how diverse those disciplines truly are.
“In chemistry textbooks, the faces of discoverers and the names of equations and principles are all European-based. That’s the history, and that’s great. They’re cool dudes,” Young says.
But at a university where 40% of the undergraduates are students of color, Young realized that many of her students couldn’t see themselves working in STEM fields if they only learned about historical figures in textbooks. So last year, after participating in UML’s committee on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and reading more than a dozen books on the topic, Young created “DEI in STEM” modules for her courses.
“We have such a beautifully diverse campus,” says Young, who has taught in the Kennedy College of Sciences for 12 years. “There’s no reason not to teach this way. It’s the simplest thing to add in.”
Young’s students appreciate her efforts.
“We mostly learn about people in the past who set the foundation. It’s worthwhile to learn about people in the present from different backgrounds,” says Diego Goodrich, a rising sophomore chemistry major from Lowell who found the module on Clever Fox particularly interesting.
“It’s good to know about people who aren’t in the textbook, who aren’t appreciated as much,” says Arshjot Kaur, a rising sophomore psychology major (pre-med track) from Westford, Massachusetts.
“As a woman, it’s nice to know that it’s not just men that have played a role in science,” adds Lydia Pendleton, a rising junior exercise science major from Tewksbury, Massachusetts. “She always finds great people to talk about, people from different ethnicities and genders. I’d never heard of most of them, so it’s nice to hear about what they’ve done.”
Young also created a “Scientist and Engineers Day” in each course where students are asked to make a brief presentation about a STEM figure who inspires them. She says 85% percent of the students talked about “somebody who looks like them, in gender or in race.”
Even when the lesson doesn’t include the mention of a scientist, Young has been able to introduce more diversity. When teaching about mass spectrometry, for instance, she used to show a stand-alone picture of the instrument to students. She replaced it with images of people of color using the instrument.
“Now, there’s somebody who looks like them running the machine,” she says. “It’s the smallest thing, but it humanizes it, and I think that’s what this generation is begging for.”
Young has expanded the lessons to include LGBTQ scientists such as English mathematician Alan Turing, as well as scholars who faced neurodiversity challenges. She presented her DEI in STEM work at the Faculty Symposium in March and plans to share her modules with colleagues in the Chemistry Department.
In addition to aligning with the university’s recently unveiled Pillars of Inclusive Excellence, Young says the DEI lessons improve student engagement in class.
“I’m surprised how powerful it turned out to be. Students who used to be quiet and shy were suddenly talking to me more,” says Young, who will always remember the feedback she received from one student in particular.
“He said, ‘No one has ever done this. I have never been really sure I had a place until now. Thank you,’” Young recalls. “I went back to my office and cried. That’s when I knew it was working.”