Beyond good intentions: sensitivity to students’ diverse backgrounds in the hard sciences – by Dave Smith (School of Mathematics)

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The importance of cultural and racial sensitivity in subjects such as English, History, Politics, Law, and Fine Art seems obvious – they have culture and human life at their centre. But what about in the cold, hard world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)? When preparing, delivering and assessing our courses can we simply focus on equations, physical laws, chemical formulae and algorithms, or do we need to think about our students’ racial and cultural diversity (a subject we may not know much about anyway)? Surely as long as colleagues have good intentions and treat students with common courtesy we have nothing to worry about? In this post I will suggest that this is not the case, focusing on my own subject of expertise, mathematics, and an area of my relative ignorance which is the experience of students and colleagues who unlike me are not white British men, suggesting a couple of discussion points along these lines.

My first suggestion relates to how the motivating examples and reference points we choose may be received by our students. Probability is the mathematical study of uncertainty: for example we can say that the probability of drawing a heart from a shuffled pack of cards is one in four – if we repeat the process 1000 times, we would expect to draw a heart about 250 times (and 95% of the time we would draw between 223 and 277 hearts). How did I come up with that example? I immediately thought of a pack of cards, perhaps because like many other white British people I grew up playing cards and expected that you the reader must have done too. However on reflection many of our students, and some readers of this post (maybe you!) did not. Perhaps games of chance that are associated with gambling are a very unwelcome topic. In a similar vein, financial examples related to say interest on savings or insurance may be unfamiliar or irrelevant to many Muslim students. I would not advocate banning examples relating to gambling or Western banking from the classroom. However as educators we can be aware that our attempts to make mathematics ‘relevant’ will have varying success because what is relevant to us may not be equally relevant to every student in the room. Sensitivity to students’ reactions and ability to adjust – sometimes on the fly – are essential. The risk of snow this weekend is perhaps something everyone can relate to regardless of culture!

The second suggestion relates to conveying ‘[insert your discipline here] as a human endeavour’. Mathematics, engineering and sciences have arisen through the efforts of people to solve human problems, and through human curiosity and drive to succeed. We aim for our students to graduate equipped and confident to do this themselves. Part of this process is to encourage students to see how they fit into the human story of a living subject; learning should therefore be a process of guided re-discovery and ownership of knowledge, an adoption of the identity of a mathematician (or physicist or chemist…), and ultimately the discovery and application of new knowledge. It is therefore very valuable to discuss past pioneers and indeed their own human story (think for example Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking) can make their achievements still more compelling. Inspiring and developing future leaders is of course particularly important to those of us who teach in a research-intensive university such as Birmingham. However we must be aware that for those of us trained in a predominantly European culture, the examples of pioneering scientists that immediately spring to our minds may lack diversity, and therefore can be received – perhaps subconsciously – in ways we do not intend. Very many of the mathematicians after whom theorems, theories and techniques are named were European white men. However, every culture in history, (and all gender identities) have developed and used mathematics to some degree, from the ancient Egyptian method of multiplication (to which modern binary multiplier circuits are closely related), to the Hindu-Arabic decimal number system we use now, to today’s international community of academic and industrial mathematicians on every continent. In recognition of this fact, a group of graduating students in mathematics recently produced a set of posters celebrating the achievements of mathematicians across different cultures and times, and of both genders – we now use these posters at all Open Days as part of a bigger effort to ensure that applicants don’t feel (consciously or subconsciously) that mathematicians are all white Europeans, or all male. Still more important are our efforts to ensure that applicants and students see a consistently diverse group of role models and leaders at every stage, from the first contact at Open Day to postgraduate supervision and beyond. To this aim, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students in mathematics organise regular meetings and activities, an activity which will soon be extended to other schools in Engineering and Physical Sciences College.

In summary, cultural diversity is an issue that is relevant to all subjects, including STEM disciplines. Sensitivity to the fact we have a diverse student group is essential, especially among those of us whose gender, cultural and racial background mean we have never experienced being part of a minority group – it is not simply enough to have good intentions and a clear set of lecture notes. A promising avenue for progress is through leadership by students from BAME groups in clarifying, communicating and improving the academic experience for all.

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