How Storytelling Inspires Representation in STEM Communities

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Sibrina Collins, Ph.D.
Executive Director
The Marburger STEM Center, Lawrence Technological University

Caption: Students share stories about their STEM projects during summer camp on the campus of Lawrence Technological University. (Image Credit: LTU file photo)

How do we make sure all stakeholders have representation in our communities?

In the late 1990s, I was a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at Ohio State University pursuing my doctorate in the field of inorganic chemistry. It was an exciting time to pursue graduate studies in this field. Dr. Gregory Robinson, Foundation Distinguished Professor, University of Georgia, and his colleagues had published two papers in high-impact journals focused on new and groundbreaking compounds that were highly unusual. Robinson’s research ideas were highly debated and not widely accepted within the chemistry community, leading to a very public chemistry feud, which was highlighted in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN).1 This public feud launched his career to greater heights, and in 2021 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences for expanding our understanding of chemical bonding.

I was inspired by Professor Robinson because he is a chemist who took a risk by publishing those papers which challenged the traditional ideas of chemical bonding and he is also an African American. His story made such an impact on me, I developed a lesson plan about his groundbreaking work when I was an assistant professor. I wanted students to learn from this story that scientific concepts, ideas, and theories discussed in the classroom and in textbooks can be challenged. In the instructor notes for the lesson plan, I described how student teams presented chemistry concepts and learned about this important story. Reflecting on the impact of this story, one student shared that “there was a lot of pride on the line,” and nobody wanted to back down from their perspective. I was thrilled when students asked for my opinion on the story, allowing me to further connect with my students. Thus, I use storytelling as a pedagogical tool to address equity and engage students in the classroom.


A Recommended Documentary to Inspire Students:

Robinson was not the only chemist who inspired me in my career in science. Subsequently, after defending my dissertation over two decades ago, I learned about Dr. Saint Elmo Brady, the first African American to earn a PhD in chemistry in 1916 from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. I highly recommend that STEM and humanities educators utilize a wonderful 5-minute award-winning documentary about Dr. Brady’s impact in science titled, 20 Whites & One Other, as a resource to engage their students and bring storytelling into the classroom.


DEI in the STEM Curriculum

Dr. Collins and a student hunch over a table to get a closer look at a blueprint. The student indicates a square within the blueprint using his pencil, as if asking a question.

Dr. Collins reviews a student’s design at a STEM summer camp hosted by LTU. (Image Credit: LTU file photo)

In January 2021, I published, The Importance of Storytelling in Chemical Education, where I briefly talk about Robinson’s research and the impact these stories can have on students.2 My approach to storytelling in STEM education essentially uses history of science as a platform to allow students the ability to see themselves and highlight the contributions of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) STEM leaders in the course curriculum.

How do we make sure all stakeholders have representation in our communities? We can achieve this through storytelling, which has been in existence for millennia, to communicate ideas, beliefs, and values within our communities.

I also highlighted a wonderful essay titled The Tensions of Scientific Storytelling, authored by Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman.3 “Science has stories to it. Scientists shape these stories, and the protagonists of these stories need not be human,” writes Hoffman. After my paper was published, I received many kind responses on social media and emails from the STEM community, solidifying for me that storytelling is an important tool for addressing representation in the STEM community. I took a deeper dive in the literature focusing on the impact of storytelling in STEM education.

In 2014, Dr. Michael F. Dahlstrom, Iowa State University, published, Using Narratives and Storytelling to Communicate Science with Nonexpert Audiences, where he describes the benefits of narrative communication.4 “Instead, narratives seem to offer intrinsic benefits in each of the four main steps of processing information: motivation and interest, allocating cognitive resources, elaboration, and transfer into long-term memory,” writes Dahlstrom. Furthermore, Dahlstrom discusses the role and impact that entertainment media, specifically “movies, television comedies and dramas, documentaries and novels” have on science communication with the public. I will revisit the idea of using popular movies and documentaries for storytelling and science engagement with students a bit later.

Over 15 years ago, Dr. Stephen Norris, professor of education at the University of Alberta, and his colleagues, published, A Theoretical Framework for Narrative Explanation in Science, which provided eight key elements of narratives including the role of the narrator, reader, and structure.5 Norris and his colleagues argued that “science education too often focuses on ideas in isolation, and consequently obscures the major themes at the core of science.” Furthermore, the researchers emphasized the “existence of a narrative effect that enhances memory, interest and understanding.”

Recently, faculty at Spelman College (Dr. Shanina Sanders Johnson, Dr. Leyte Winfield, Dr. Danielle Dickens) and Morehouse College (Dr. Sinead Younge), published the article, Moving Beyond the Experiment to See Chemists Like Me: Cultural Relevance in the Organic Chemistry Laboratory.6 The researchers write, “It has been shown that academic success alone is not sufficient in encouraging underrepresented students to persist in STEM. Their identities, world views, and personal experiences must also be considered.” The researchers brilliantly describe strategies which essentially allowed students to become storytellers and make key connections between their own experiences and learning. Furthermore, this type of needed research builds upon the significance of the narrative effect described by Norris and his colleagues.

How can storytelling be leveraged to improve representation in our STEM communities and drive change?

Incorporate Science Fiction and Superhero Films into the STEM Curriculum

In February 2018, I watched Marvel Studios’ Black Panther with family and was absolutely inspired to use this film to engage undergraduate students about the significance and organization of periodic table of the elements. In June 2018, my colleague, Professor LaVetta Appleby and I published an article, Black Panther, Vibranium and the Periodic Table, which has been viewed nearly 28,000 times as of November 2021. A key point we make in the article is that the film provides a unique opportunity to discuss the intellectual contributions of women and BIPOC STEM leaders. As a result of this publication, I have delivered several talks about “superhero science” including during the 2019 ChemEd Conference held at North Central College, where I focused on the importance of embracing different teaching strategies to engage students. My presentation was specifically for educators, but to my surprise there was a middle school student also in attendance. After my talk, one of the attendees posted on Twitter, “You know it’s good when a 13-year-old says, ‘I want to do stuff like this in science.’” The fictional vibranium along with the characters Shuri and Black Panther serve as important tools for engagement.

Innovative Approaches for Recruitment and Retention of Future STEM Leaders

I honestly believe that universities, colleges, STEM departments and science education centers need to develop more innovative approaches to recruit and retain a diverse pipeline of STEM leaders, so all stakeholders are represented. When we recruit students, we really should be saying that if you choose to major in a STEM discipline, here is how you can improve your communities. In my opinion, the academic community does not recruit students with this strategy. Many students would like to use their education to solve ongoing challenges in their neighborhoods focusing on social justice in STEM. The coronavirus pandemic is showing in real time why STEM education matters. Historically, we often talk about the significance of the Sputnik satellite on STEM education in the U.S. What will be the impact of COVID-19 on STEM education? It is too early to fully understand the impact of the pandemic on recruitment and retention of future STEM leaders, but there are limited studies investigating this topic.7

Organizing Symposia to Further Representation in the STEM Community

In 2021, I served as editor of a new ACS Symposium Book titled, African American Chemists: Academia, Industry and Social Entrepreneurship, which is focused on the inspiring stories of chemists and provides teaching resources for educators in the classroom.8 I co-organized with my colleagues, Dr. Taiya Fabre, Houston Baptist University and Dr. Tracey Simmons-Willis, Wharton County Junior College, a virtual symposium held during the ACS Fall 2021 National Meeting to celebrate the publication of the book. Symposium presenters included faculty from HBCUs, specifically Spelman College and Albany State University, both in the State of Georgia.

The pandemic has been extremely challenging for our society, but it has allowed us to virtually connect globally with colleagues. STEM faculty and educators can extend an invitation for colleagues to serve as keynote speakers or deliver research seminars. Specifically, extending invitations to faculty teaching at Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to discuss their research, not just DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) programming on their campuses. Furthermore, educators can have their students critically read a scientific article authored by the guest speaker prior to seminar, where students can learn more about how research is impacting society.

In addition, educators can also incorporate STEM-based documentaries into class curricula as well.

Incorporating STEM Documentaries into Class Curricula

Dr. Collins stand with her arms folded listening to a seated student discuss schematics for 3D models on his table.

Dr. Collins encourages students to share stories about their own STEM inspirations and experiences. (Image Credit: LTU file photo)

During the Spring 2021 semester, I taught a social science seminar course with the theme, “Science, Gender and Race,” at Lawrence Technological University (LTU). In this course, the students watched a documentary about the career of Dr. Saint Elmo Brady mentioned previously and another documentary entitled, Women Untold,9 which was written, directed, and produced by Marie Anne Torres-Lopez, an LTU alum.10 This documentary celebrates three trailblazing women in STEM, Alice Augusta Ball, a young African American chemist who developed the first viable treatment for leprosy (Hansen’s disease) in the early 20th century, Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb, a biologist, who later became president of California State University, Fullerton, and Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville, a mathematician who completed calculations for three NASA space projects. These are impactful stories that celebrate women in STEM.

Lessons Learned and Next Steps for Diverse Voices in the STEM Community

Why do we need more diverse voices in the STEM community? Specifically, better representation in the STEM community is critical for fostering the talent needed to solve many of society’s challenges. The steps I recommend in this article can lead us in this direction, using history of science to broaden the image of a STEM professional, and entertainment media for engagement with students in the classroom. The pandemic has connected us virtually, which provides colleges, universities, and academic departments opportunities to engage BIPOC STEM leaders and reach more diverse audiences. In other words, we can help faculty and administrators drive change with better representation in STEM.

Finally, it is up to all of us to make sure everyone has a voice and is represented in our STEM community. Through the work of LTU’s Marburger STEM Center, which is the clearinghouse of the STEM initiatives on our campus, DEI is the foundation for community engagement. The STEM workforce is dependent on important and critical talent needed to solve the challenges facing our society, such as climate change, access to clean water, health, and medicine. What will you do to ensure that everyone is represented in the STEM community?


Acknowledgments

The author acknowledges the generosity of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for providing financial support to develop the Lawrence Tech Women Untold student documentary. Established in 2016 with a generous gift from Connie and Steve Ballmer, LTU’s Marburger STEM Center is the hub of STEM-based programming on LTU’s campus.

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