"I’m Asian and I’m not supposed to rock the boat”: How California Asian American science educators are working to change the narrative.
By Dr. Nancy Nasr
“They’re Asian, they’re not going to say anything.”
This is a sentiment rooted in Asian American culture that often leads to overlooking the challenges that both Asian American science students and educators face in the context of their identities. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and in an effort to #stopasianhate, members of the CASE Equity Committee hosted a panel discussion with some distinguished Asian American science educators to discuss the experiences and challenges they face. The panel discussion, facilitated by Dr. Leena Baskhi and myself, was conducted with Anthony Quan, Jenny Chien, Lennar Madlansacay, and Mary Ann Ng. Though Zoë Randall could not join the panel discussion she was able to share her thoughts with me electronically.
This conversation gave us an opportunity to explore the Asian American experience with science education, and education in general, and allowed us to take a deeper dive into the challenges that Asian Americans experience in education, and ways to bring awareness to these challenges.
A major theme of the conversation was the negative impact of stereotypes surrounding Asian American students and educators in science education. Lennar felt that educators must unpack “practices that have been set in stone…[about] how science is supposed to be,” such as the perception that "doing science" is limited to a laboratory setting. Moving away from that perception opens doors for students and educators to learn about scientific ideas and practices that are "non-traditional" and also less white-centered.
Jenny added that “there is an expectation culturally that [Asian students] go into the sciences and have this pathway”, but that this pathway does not always honor what it means to be truly scientifically literate. Because of cultural pressure to succeed in the sciences, Asian American science students often view science as a set of discrete facts to be memorized and replicated on assessments rather than a process of discovery and understanding. Jenny shared that as an Asian American educator and administrator, she recognizes the importance of using her position to help Asian American students decipher the multiple paths they can take to becoming successful in science.
To overcome these misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding the Asian American experience in science education, the panel suggested bringing better awareness to Asian American culture. Several strategies that were proposed include using biases as teachable moments in the science classroom, using these teachable moments to engage in authentic and compassionate dialogue, and encouraging Asian American educators to amplify their voice as a tool to bring greater awareness.
Reflecting on the increased incidence of anti-Asian sentiment that emerged in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mary Ann suggested that this phenomenon could be used as a “teachable moment” in science classrooms to overcome implicit and explicit biases associated with the coronavirus and its origins from China. Lennar agreed that science educators in particular must work to “start thinking about how [to] actually bring [anti-Asian awareness] into the classroom” in a way that aligns with the scientific content being taught.
The panel agreed that tackling these issues in the science classroom facilitates the compassionate and authentic dialogue necessary to overcome explicit and implicit biases associated with the Asian American community. Zoë shared that “as [science] educators, we can help students learn about each other by sharing their stories and celebrating the intersectionality and diverse perspectives each student brings.”
The panel felt that there are some barriers that require courage for Asian American educators to overcome. Anthony reflected on his upbringing and shared “I’m Asian [and I’m] not supposed to rock the boat because that’s what I was taught. [I am] supposed to [respect] my elders and not [talk] back.” He further shared that despite the discomfort, it’s important for Asian American educators to let go of that complacency since educators are “supposed to bring about change.”
Mary Ann echoed this, wondering, “if we ourselves, the Asian educators, are not comfortable talking about it, how are we going to then connect with our colleagues [and students]” to enact change?
Anthony pointed out that a complication with these conversations is the problematic nature of the term “Asian American” in itself. “Asian Americans is a generalized term” and does not effectively honor the “completely different groups [who identify as] Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, [and] Laotians” to name a few. In other words, to have truly authentic dialogue about biases associated with the Asian culture, it is important that these conversations acknowledge the unique identities of the wide array of cultures that represent Asian heritage.
The panel acknowledged that awareness of Asian American bias is not the responsibility of Asian American educators alone. Anthony shared that he would “love some workshops [related to] Asian approaches to pedagogy or just Asian issues because [he doesn’t] feel like that’s recognized” since many educators are currently focused on other marginalized target groups. Jenny indicated that while Asian American representation is important, having representation from individuals not belonging to the Asian American community is equally important. It is important “to have representation [from] someone who is willing to be vulnerable” in order to reflect on how “someone who doesn’t look like us, [or] feel like us…[does] something within the Asian [community].”
Zoë summarized it best by noting that “CASE members can collectively ensure that educators recognize that #stopasianhate is as much about supporting the Asian American community [in the science classroom] as it is about dismantling systemic racism.
Lennar Madlansacay is a science curriculum specialist at Green Dot public schools
Mary Ann Ng is a science teacher at Alhambra High School
Jenny Chien is a principal of an elementary school in Vista
Zoë Randall is a STEAM resource teacher at San Diego Unified School District
Anthony Quan is the STEM coordinator with the Los Angeles County Office of Education