CSTA Classroom Science

Student Voices and Experiences on DEI

By  Jessica J. . Pilgram, Mishal Imaan Syed, Mumtahina Tajrian, & Anita Kreide

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become the focus of numerous worldwide organizations and is a newly formed committee for the California Association of Science Educators (CASE).  To start off the new year, as the first article from the DEI committee, it is important to give power to the voices of students with marginalized identities and how they define and experience DEI in STEM education; using their recommendations to inform STEM teaching. Three University of California STEM students with intersectional marginalized identities share their stories and suggestions to improve DEI in science education.

The definition of marginalized identities includes, but is not limited to: women+; Black, Indigenous, & People of Color (BIPOC); LGBTQIA+ folks, neurodiverse, raciolinguistic, and disabled people.  

As the Marginalized Identities in Physics & Astronomy Committee at the University of California, Los Angeles expresses in their Statement on Intersectionality: 

The framework of intersectionality was developed by UCLA professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, to examine how the overlap of multiple marginalized identities interface and interact to form compounding inequities and disadvantages. Intersectionality provides a lens to understand the overt and subtle discrimination faced by intersectional communities and serves to reflect on the social systems of privilege and oppressions that limit upward mobility.  Intersectionality is a powerful tool to provide the level of support necessary for our marginalized and intersectional communities who are affected by the many forms of visible and non-visible oppression within STEM education.

The climate of STEM fields is increasingly unwelcoming to those who occupy more than one marginalized identity. Both research and individual experiences have shown that the more identities one holds, the more one reported feelings of isolation, lack of peer and educational support, and greater instances of discrimination and harassment. An initial step in providing a more equitable and hospitable environment is the acknowledgment that we all have multiple intersecting identities that can help or hinder a STEM career. It is therefore critical that we recognize how our social systems interact across intersecting identities and impede the opportunity for marginalized communities to participate within the field. We must contend with the fact that individually addressing marginalized identities continues to perpetuate another kind of marginalization. (2020)

Three Student Voices:
Student voice is pinnacle in when thinking and learning about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The CASE DEI Committee would like to express its gratitude for the insight and experiences of these 3 University of California students with marginalized identity. 

Beginning graduate school, I was prepared for academic rigor, but not for how emotionally challenging it would be as a marginalized student. My cohort in the UC physics department was 30 students, 4 of which were women (2 international students). Grad school is isolating, but even more so when you share an office with 17 men. I was very aware that I was the only woman in the room and the biases attached negatively impacted my course work. I was afraid to ask classmates questions for fear of being judged as not good enough because I was a woman. In class, many times I was the only woman in the room. Looking back, I don’t think I ever asked a question in class during my entire first year. Even into the second year, I was only comfortable asking a select few males for help. I had to work extra hard to fit in, this led me to struggle longer on problems before asking for help. Looking back, I had obviously developed a strong case of imposter syndrome which is common for graduate students in general, but magnified in those who hold marginalized identities. This was made worse by the fact that I had begun to struggle with anxiety, which was in part due to the fact that I had no mentor and few others like me around for support. Unfortunately, getting through the first year courses wasn’t the worst part. 

In the UCLA physics department, you must pass a comprehensive exam to continue your Ph.D. This is a 2-day, 8-hour written test on all undergraduate areas of physics, but is commonly at a graduate level. Being one of 4 women, I felt I needed to do well to prove to others and myself that I deserved to be in the program. The stress and pressure worsened my imposter syndrome and anxiety, leading me to develop heart palpitations and panic attacks. During the test, I had several small panic attacks and spent entire nights between testing days crying and debating whether I would continue. I was proving I belonged. In the end, I turned in my test with literal blood, sweat, and tears. When scores came back, I passed! However, based on the physics department rank I had the lowest passing score in my cohort. Sure I passed, but I was the lowest of the ranks. The knowledge that I had the lowest passing score worsened my imposter syndrome and anxiety, and led to depression. I commonly considered the idea of dropping out of the program even though I had passed the exam, because I felt so alone and like I didn’t belong. 

Today, I still struggle with the imposter syndrome linked to my struggles as a marginalized identity in my program. Additionally, my anxiety and depression are now so extreme that I have had to obtain psychiatric treatment. The only reason I continued  was because I was fortunate to have a strong support system of friends, most of whom are also marginalized identities in STEM, that pushed and supported me to get help. In my experience, I lacked the presence of a mentor and support from professors and staff in the department. I feel that if I would have had an older graduate student and faculty as mentors and supporters who shared the same identities as me during my first year, I would have felt supported. I have found having mentors is essential to marginalized identities thriving in STEM. Mentors would have been able to acknowledge my struggles and assure me my experience was a problem of the culture of the system. Just having someone to show me that I was not alone in my struggles would have made me feel so validated in my feelings and helped reduce my desire to drop out. 

Based on my personal experiences, I believe teachers could greatly reduce the feelings of imposter syndrome and encourage marginalized identities to pursue STEM careers with the following suggestions:

  • Provide safe spaces for students where they can be heard and supported in all aspects of their identity. 
    • Provide a space for students to come speak to you about issues and struggles and provide mentorship and encouragement for them. Make sure the students know that the conversations do not have to be limited to academic things.
    • Take an ally training and proudly post signs in your class that show you are an ally. Schools could provide ally training sessions for teachers in their schools.
    • Be involved in and support groups at your school which provide spaces for marginalized identities. Examples: LGBTQIA+ groups, LGBTQIA+ in STEM, BIPOC in STEM, women in STEM, etc. Help create these types of support groups if they do not exist at your school. 
  • Connecting students with mentors and role models who share similar identities and experiences in STEM who will help validate and support them to pursue STEM. 
    • Bring in guest speakers who hold marginalized identities and have them talk about their experiences in STEM 
    • Connect students to people in careers they are interested in who share similar identities or experiences while growing up
    • Hold networking events or panels where students can connect with and talk to people who share similar identities that have careers in fields that the students are interested in. 
    • Share examples and stories of scientists from marginalized backgrounds
  • For exams, only give pass/fail grades with clear and concise feedback. 
    • This will help marginalized identities because there is no comparing how well you did with other students, just the knowledge that you did well.
    • Knowing that others scored better can diminish the accomplishment of the marginalized student by making them feel not good enough. 
    • Only giving out pass/fails levels the playing field to allow all to know they are good enough. 
    • Teachers can give feedback such as: “you did well with these concepts but could focus on improving in these areas”. Each student would know their strengths and clear areas for growth to personalize and target improvement.
    • Teachers can still have actually numbered scores for final grades but these would not be given out to students and would only be released with explicit requests from guardians.  

The first time my 6th grade STEM teacher walked into the room–every step emanating with confidence–I was mesmerized. Without a single word, she could command the respect and attention of every single student in the room. Not a single day passed where she was not dressed elegantly from head to toe in a dress or skirt, or accented by gold on her ears and neck. However, the most amazing thing was the beauty she held outside could not compete with her beauty within. When she spoke, her words were always laced with kindness and encouragement. She taught us to look at failure as the necessary means to success. The best part of my day was walking into her class and programming prosthetic arms, using physics to build a popsicle stick bridge, or how different shapes and densities of materials affect how high a water bottle rocket would soar. Oftentimes my projects would fail or there were gaps in my understanding that affected the final product. I never felt like I wanted to give up, or that the reason my project wasn’t working was because I wasn’t good enough. My teacher instilled this thinking in me and I continued to be active in my scientific endeavors with an exploratory lens, rather than an orchestrated one. 

Eight years later, I feel exhausted. When I fail a chemistry exam in college, thoughts of never being good enough now overwhelm me. I am suddenly drowning in the guilt that comes with being a first-generation oldest child. I feel like I am disappointing my parents who worked so hard to immigrate here to give me a good life. I stumble with the weight of being a perfect example for my younger sisters to follow. I worry the reputation I build for myself in the US will fall short, and my relatives in Bangladesh may fail to feel motivated to work hard when their opportunities significantly lack compared to mine. My mind can’t help but to think back on all the long nights my dad spent to provide for my family, the sacrifices of my mom to benefit my future, and the hopes and dreams they have for me they never dared to imagine for themselves. I miss the exhilaration of exploring science and math without fear of failure and self disappointment and it is hard to continue to see education in that way when you are expected to break the cycle of financial insecurity and generational trauma. 

So why is it difficult for students who come from diverse backgrounds, like myself, to take risks without fear of failure in STEM education they may have found easy to do when they were younger? It’s difficult to keep passion and love for learning active when, the moment students start to grow into adolescents, the education system does not feel it is important to encourage the same childlike fascination and curiosity that existed in the classroom when students were younger. Science education now depends on how much information you can memorize from a textbook. Educators often forget that it is also necessary to create an environment that nurtures the desire to learn as they get wrapped up in test scores instead. 

These days, the STEM field is dominated by men, leaving little to no representation for young women to feel motivated by, and this is detrimental to their success because they may not have anyone else to look up to. The student population at top schools may reflect as showing little diversity in both racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, which further causes students with marginalized identities to struggle with assimilation and therefore mental health. The representation of educators and leaders with  marginalized identities are miniscule, hindering the prospect of connecting to young people who may feel like they can’t succeed because they do not experience certain opportunities that the white American norm entails. I was lucky to have my 6th grade STEM teacher and I was even luckier that she looked like me. I felt that in regards to my background, I could succeed and achieve whatever I wanted to because she did. Today, I’m pursuing my science education minor in hopes one day I can be a similar role model for marginalized identities like me who may not have been as fortunate. For now, I feel it is the mission of us all to improve STEM education to provide ALL students with the opportunity to thrive, with the understanding they are leaders of the future and should be supported. 

With this in mind, I call on educators to move forward in fostering an inclusive and healthy environment for ALL students and the sum of all of their intersectionalities to succeed in STEM. Some ways I believe this can be achieved are as follows: 

  • Listen more, speak less,  and learn from students. 
    • Understanding that students come from unique and layered experiences and the words you chose to describe your course are not always applicable. I’ve heard many STEM teachers use terms like “this course is easy,” or “this assignment is easy, you should have no trouble completing it”.  This is insensitive to students who need scaffolds to access the assignment and can leave them feeling “less than” or “unintelligent”. This is not equitable. 
  • Incorporate activities/assignments that are hands-on, to encourage learning. 
    • Textbook and worksheet dependent learning has taken the joy and excitement out of learning. By utilizing this strategy, students’ mental health will also improve because they will understand there is more to science education than just grades.  This supports equity and inclusion. 
  • Provide those with marginalized identities mentorship in both academics and support beyond school. 
    • Have older students or faculty who are from marginalized identities mentor. Schools often mention they have counseling, but it’s never the same as a supporting mentor who can relate to the student.
  • Accept and understand your privilege, and encourage students to do the same. 
    • Even with mentor support, it is still hard to feel integrated into the societal fabric when the majority of the population experiences privilege. Learn to accept your privilege as an educator and figure out how to leverage it to support students with marginalized identities. Be a visible role model for privileged students to do the same; consider workshops or presentations. Feeling like one belongs or is accepted is a major factor in their success in STEM. Social circumstances matter just as much as academic circumstances do. 

During the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I took a prep class intended to get students ready for AP Calculus. It was taught by my school’s only Calculus BC teacher. This particular teacher had a 100% pass rate on the AP exam and a 98% pass rate, which gave him an excellent academic reputation and shielded him from being criticized for the things he said to his students. He had an incredibly elitist attitude and resented having to teach the regular calc class, claiming that non-AP students “can’t tell the difference between a cosine and a tangent.” He looked down on teaching as a profession, which is ironic considering he is a teacher, but I got the impression that he’d wanted to do something else and resented his current job. He frequently complained about having to teach students he deemed “stupid” and claimed that students’ intelligence was in “exponential decay.” His classroom was decorated with Harvard, Dartmouth, and MIT flags from floor to ceiling.  Occasionally he’d point out a flag and say, “Maybe one of you will end up here…actually no, I don’t think anyone here is good enough for that, maybe ‘just’ UCLA or Berkeley.” Once, he made a grandiose remark about how he wished he could exclusively interact with  “people of above average IQ” so his environment would benefit his intellect. I informed him that being in an environment filled with other people of “above average IQ” would render his intelligence average. This was one of many egotistical remarks he made, causing me constant frustration. 

Many students found this teacher hilarious and took his class for entertainment purposes (as well as mathematical purposes). But I didn’t find his remarks funny after the first thirty seconds—they betrayed an attitude of severe egotism and unchecked elitism, and eventually I got so frustrated I decided I would never take Calculus BC. (I enrolled in Calc AB and AP Stats instead.) This teacher was permitted to say almost anything he wanted because there’s a shortage of competent STEM teachers, and math teachers with high AP exam scores are essentially immune to criticism. (It’s worth mentioning that students often drop out of Calc BC, plus my school district is an extremely rich district where kids hire private tutors, so his high AP score rate can be attributed only partially to his teaching; the rest of it is due to his students' privilege.) A lot of my peers talked openly about this teacher and repeated what he said, even mirroring or adopting his elitist attitude. This created an atmosphere of unwarranted hostility and made it difficult to ask for help. The emphasis placed on inherent intelligence added extreme pressure to the situation, since no one wanted to be considered one of his insufferable “stupid” students.

The attitude of this calc teacher was reinforced by my math and physics tutor, who told me I wasn’t smart enough to grasp certain concepts, including saying (when my mechanical pencil stopped working) “oh you can’t figure out how that works because you’re a girl. Yeah, I went there—” And then he laughed like it was funny, except it wasn’t. One week before the Physics 1 AP exam, he made a rather inappropriate remark towards me, which surprised me, because he’d been mean before but never in a creepy way. I didn’t say anything directly, but after he left I texted him saying I didn’t need him to teach me anymore. During my senior year, I searched for a female physics tutor but couldn’t find a single one who wasn’t already fully booked.

Fortunately, my actual physics teacher was much better than the tutor. I took AP Physics 1 during my junior year mostly because my parents wanted me to; however, I ended up liking the teacher and the class and I stayed for Physics C the following year. My physics teacher emphasized effort over innate ability and held none of the elitist attitudes that the Calc BC teacher did, and we weren't afraid to ask questions. I was motivated to work hard on the material despite multiple bad test grades, and the teacher always noticed this and praised diligence rather than inherent intellect. As a result, I took another year of physics voluntarily, which was something I had never thought I’d do, and I saw substantial results over two years in his class. I could see my scores improve over time and I was motivated to do my best. Like the Calc BC teacher, this physics teacher also had nearly a 100% pass rate on the AP exam, demonstrating that elitist attitudes aren’t necessary if your goal is to encourage achievement. 

As a STEM educator please consider the following suggestions to support students with marginalized identities. 

  • Being a bystander is wrong. Speak up and call out teachers with elitist attitudes in STEM. 
    • As a teacher, do not be a bystander. Don’t pretend like it is not happening, that it is just a rumor, or since it is not your classroom it is not your problem. Elitist comments are a form of intellectual bullying in the hierarchical teacher/student structure. Elitist, egotistical attitudes in STEM prevent students who would otherwise enjoy math and science from entering these disciplines. They also discourage students from asking for help and make the environment less collaborative, since kids are focused on competing against each other. Encourage students to work hard and praise effort over innate intellect, and don’t put down students from less privileged backgrounds or make them feel unwelcome.
  • Hold all teachers to the same standard of conduct.
    • A teacher’s academic competence is not immunity from criticism. Teachers shouldn’t tacitly allow each other to say unacceptable things; there needs to be a basic standard of conduct that all teachers and professors follow regardless of how “smart” they and their students are. If a teacher’s comments veer into bullying or foster a hostile environment, they should be held accountable by their colleagues, students, administration, and district office.
  • Grade students’ tests and assignments based on an objective standard rather than a competition-based curve.
    • In all the calc classes at my high school, students were graded based on “x percentage of the class gets an A, and everyone else scores lower,” even if the kids who scored lower knew the curricular material well (and nearly all of them did). This meant that students who got high AP exam scores often didn’t get equivalent or fair classroom grades; this shifted the kids’ focus from actually learning the material to outwitting their peers. It also resulted in a greater tendency to cheat and to bully other students. 

Final Thoughts:
The personal experiences shared above of 3 students with marginalized identities shows how each individual is unique in their intersectionality, lens, and recommendations for support. It is important to understand that each individual may not share the same feelings or insights, which highlights the importance of getting to know the stories of each and every student to cultivate an environment of care and learning in the classroom. With that, each student would like to summarize their thoughts around diversity, equity, and inclusion in 1 sentence. 

  • These women have gotten to where they are today in their STEM careers because they are resilient, but no one should have to be resilient to study science. 
  • As an educator, it is important to be open-minded and vulnerable in front of students in order to promote a healthy and inclusive learning environment.
  • Effort, dedication, and collaboration create a better environment for students than elitism. 

Marginalized Identities in Physics & Astronomy (MIPA) at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). (2020, September). Statement on Intersectionality. UC Los Angeles Marginalized Identities in Physics & Astronomy. https://mipa.pa.ucla.edu/ 



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