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Bringing an Anti-Racist Lens to STEM Afterschool Activities

During the summer of 2020, as the pandemic and racial violence elevated the conversation around equity and equality in education, ExpandED began to reconsider its afterschool STEM curriculum. Was it anti-racist? Did it lift students’ voices? Could all kids see themselves in the activities? The team running STEM Educators Academy (SEA), a collaborative effort between ExpandED and New York Hall of Science that trains educators to implement hands-on STEM activities, began reevaluating its program to ensure that it measured up to anti-racist standards. Fran Agnone, the SEA program director, discusses the effort to make the curriculum relevant and inclusive for all participants.

Over the past year, you have worked to re-think ExpandED’s afterschool STEM curriculum with a lens of anti-racism. How did this effort come about?

STEM Educators Academy has been co-developed by ExpandED Schools and The New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) since 2012. Historically, staff from ExpandED Schools and NYSCI have been the main drivers of curriculum development. But over the past year, we really focused on how to bring in new feedback loops, paying special attention to the voices of our talented afterschool educators. 

Our commitment to revising our curriculum emerged after schools closed for the shutdown in March of 2019 when we began adjusting our lessons for hybrid or fully remote learning. As time went on, we saw this moment of flux as an opportunity to also revise lessons from an anti-racist perspective after being outraged by the murder of George Floyd and countless other acts of violence against people of color from in New York City and beyond. During the summer of 2020, ExpandED Schools as a whole began exploring what it looks like to be an anti-racist organization and we wanted to bring that through-line to our STEM program. 

To support the project, we were able to onboard two wonderful consultants, Yvonne Thevenot, who created a rubric to assess our curriculum, and Ashley Johnson, who led the effort to bring our stakeholders into the conversation and ultimately assess 60+ activities. 

What were the key findings in your assessment of the afterschool STEM curriculum?

Working with our consultant partners, program stakeholders used a rubric to assess the existing curriculum. The rubric gauged how well our lessons held up when pressure tested against questions like “do lessons include resources that reflect a wide range of diverse people who have contributed to the STEM topic the lesson is based on?” By assessing our lessons against various metrics rooted in ideas of social justice, racial equity and restorative justice, we were able to identify lessons for small tweaks, continual development or a complete overhaul. 

At the end of this assessment process, we found a lot to celebrate in our materials: 92% of our lessons support engagement and collaboration with youth to create a sense of belonging and 96% of our lessons are anchored in meaningful real-world experiences. At the same time, we saw clear areas where we needed to improve. For example, we needed to make more explicit connections exploring the ways race, gender, socioeconomic status and sexual identity are interrelated with STEM concepts. 

What are the STEM Team’s next steps for curriculum revision? 

First, we are in the process of editing new lesson plans that were created by SEA educators who signed on to help us adjust pre-existing lessons or to come up with new ones based on their experience teaching STEM to middle schoolers. After attending two community sessions with our consultant partner, Ashley Johnson, two of our educators submitted brand new lessons, one in urban wildlife and the other on the engineering design process. We look forward to sharing these tools more broadly with the field and including them in our training and toolkit soon!

Second, following recommendations that emerged from our community of educators and consultant partners, we are making some changes to our professional learning sessions and existing curriculum materials.  Right now, we are embedding more explicit culturally relevant approaches in our STEM training and highlighting them in the lessons in our toolkit. For example, this October we hosted a training on electricity and circuits and we put the spotlight on Lewis Latimer, a Black inventor who ran a lab in Queens, highlighting a STEM icon connected to the science content.  We are also working with our educators to build a shared vocabulary around concepts like Culturally Relevant Education– what do we mean? What does it look like? What are educators doing already that works? These conversations build a shared understanding with tangible examples for us all to grow in our practice of STEM facilitation.

How can afterschool help affirm Black and Latinx students’ STEM identities?

I recently had the pleasure of sharing our curriculum revision project at the Association of Science and Technology Centers’ Annual Conference alongside our partners, Jasmine Maldonado  from NYSCI, Ashley Johnson and Jewell Barrow, a STEM educator at the Community Counseling and Mediation Service.

Jewell created a new lesson plan as part of our revision project. When reflecting on this process, Jewell shared: ‘In doing the lesson plan, I had to think about student communities. One of my sites was mostly Latinx students and the other was mostly Black. So I had to think about the different cultural backgrounds while making it STEM-rich. I choose to teach evolution through urban wildlife. Rather than Darwin’s finches, [I used] squirrels and pigeons. Being that they are 6th, 7th and 8th graders in the city… I had to think about what interested them in STEM. I thought by highlighting things they see every day, they would be more drawn into the lesson.’ 

What I love about Jewell’s example is how it shows this work can be fun and affirm youth identities by using examples and learning experiences based on what youth already know about or enjoy.  Here, exploring evolution is a celebration of local context, familiar animal city-dwellers and the interests and creativity of young people and staff facilitators.  This experience re-centers the narrative away from an old white man to something youth experience in their daily life.  The example is also rich because it gives educators options about where to direct the lesson. For example, this lesson could include opportunities for students to explore the racism underpinning Darwin’s work and approach, and the troubling legacy of his work in phrenology and eugenics.

What approaches to revising the SEA could be used by other educators rethinking their curriculum? 

I think one of the biggest takeaways from our work has been shifting to an “iterative process” where curriculum revision becomes part of the program, rather than a special project. We were very fortunate to work and learn from expert consultants who helped shepherd the process forward, but, to be sustainable and to evolve, continuous improvement needs to be owned by the team implementing the program. We have since integrated elements of culturally relevant education into our evaluation plan and we routinely check against our progress at our meetings. 

For an educator who is just starting out in the work, my advice would be to form a team, ideally one that represents a diversity of perspectives and identities, to begin assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum you use. Draw on many different kinds of stakeholders: the youth who participate, educators who lead it, trainers who use it, authors who developed it, and trusted colleagues who can bring fresh eyes.  To get started, you might want to take a look at the resources our consultant Ashley Johnson put together or explore this scorecard from NYU.