George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

Implicit Bias in the STEM Classroom

How to start tackling the biases that hold students back in STEM.
Three girls work on computer circuitry.
Three girls work on computer circuitry.

We all hold implicit biases about people that influence our behavior and interactions in ways we don’t even realize. When teachers’ hidden attitudes and beliefs about students are based on race, ethnicity, and/or gender, they may unwittingly communicate negative messages to their black, brown, and female students about their abilities to tackle STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects. Pervasive stereotypical images of scientists and other STEM professionals (think Albert Einstein) may further reinforce to these students that STEM careers are important, but are not for them.

The black astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson addressed how it feels to be on the receiving end of this type of bias when he was asked to make a speech at his elementary school. He responded, “I am where I am not because of what happened in school but in spite of it, and that is probably not what you want me to say. Call me back, and I will address your teachers and give them a piece of my mind.”

What Can We Do About Implicit Biases?

Uncover your implicit STEM biases. Try testing yourself for hidden bias. Which students do you have high versus low expectations of when it comes to math and science? How do these students compare to the images that pop into your mind when you visualize a scientist or mathematician? How might you be expressing these biases to your students? Try making a video of yourself during a science or math lesson and view it later. Notice whom you call on, whom you ignore, and how you respond to individual students’ questions, ideas, and misconceptions. What patterns do you see?

Build supportive relationships with students. When teachers communicate confidence in their students’ abilities to meet high expectations, they positively affect student learning. This is especially important in STEM, where students are asked to explore new things, tackle challenging problems, and take risks with their ideas. Your time and positive attention are the most powerful teaching tools you have. Use them!

Take advantage of students’ “funds of knowledge.” All students have ideas about the world and how it works based on evidence from their experiences outside of school. Motivate students to make connections between home and school STEM experiences by drawing out their ideas (including their misconceptions) and using them as launching pads for inquiry-based school explorations. Encourage students to express their ideas and thinking using demonstration, role-play, modeling, drawings, visuals, and language.

Group children in a variety of ways for STEM activities. Although school culture tends to prize individual effort and achievement, many cultures (and increasingly 21st-century STEM careers) value cooperation and collaboration. Give students opportunities to work with girls and boys of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and languages.

Showcase STEM role models who look like your students. Don’t wait until Women’s History, Black History, or Hispanic Heritage months to collect, display, and talk about the work of women, black, and Latino scientists. Are you doing space science? Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut to go into space, might be a good choice. Studying earth science or fossils? Consider Luis Alvarez, the Latino physicist who developed the asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction.

Display and talk about a variety of STEM careers. Avoid stereotypical images of STEM professionals that portray scientists, for example, as white men with thick glasses, pocket protectors, lab coats, and test tubes. Instead look for a wider variety of images that show scientists, technology specialists, engineers, and mathematicians working in a variety of careers and settings.
Invite STEM professionals to visit the classroom. Host a STEM visitor (preferably one from an underrepresented group) who has a connection to a current exploration, unit of study, or project students are working on. Help students plan some questions they might ask the visitor, including “What made you decide to become a ___?” and “What is your favorite part of your job and why?”

Evaluate the STEM books in your classroom library. Books give students powerful messages about who excels at STEM. Make sure your classroom library incorporates diversity. Suggestions for elementary classrooms include Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty. Provide children with notebooks in which to record their STEM documentation and encourage them to personalize the notebooks to make them their own.

Teachers alone cannot tackle systemic issues of racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism in STEM. For example, before they even enter our classrooms, black and Latino students from low-income communities face an opportunity gap that affords them unequal access to schools, curricula, and teachers that promote “deeper learning” experiences and STEM dispositions. But addressing our own biases and enriching our repertoires of STEM teaching behaviors is a manageable goal that has the potential to dramatically benefit not only our individual students but the STEM community as a whole. After all, exploration and innovation in the 21st century will depend on a diverse STEM workforce that brings a wealth of experiences, ideas, and perspectives to the table.

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Mike Treanor's picture
Mike Treanor
High School Science Teacher

After reading this, I think I must have a different way of looking at things. When I talk to my students, I ask probing questions to figure out "where they are" on their math and science learning journey. I know the whole map, so it isn't difficult to find out what place they are close to.

I also talk with them about hobbies and what types of interests they have. Students who like to take things apart, or build electronics, or mess with tools ... those types of things ... I know they have experience to go with their interest.

Some students are marvelously motivated by astronomy or biochemistry or physics. It doesn't seem to enter into my mind what a person's accent or skin color or hair style has to do with anything.

I have tried to focus more on girls to make sure they have chances to be leaders and to voice their opinions. Having two daughters myself, I've seen how they can be pushed back during conversations. But I don't think it changes my conversations with individual students or my opinion of them.

I've seen TED talks of people from the poorest parts of the world get invited to illustrious colleges of engineering because of their feats. I've also seen people with degrees from these types of colleges who are dumb as a post.

I just don't think a person's ability or passion has as much to do with race or any other outside factors as many people seem to think nowadays. It is what happens inside your mind that matters, after all.

Anyway, just my 2 cents ...

Cindy Hoisington's picture
Cindy Hoisington
Early childhood science and teacher educator

Hi Mike,
Thanks so much for your very thoughtful and reflective response to my post. I think that promoting conversation is the best part of what can happen in these blogs! To me (and it's important to be clear that I'm in early childhood/early elementary not at the HS level) asking probing/productive questions and making connections between the science/engineering being taught and students' interests and experience is the hallmark of differentiated instruction and what we all aim for. The downside of blog posts is that the word limit is such that i couldn't include the research findings that got me interested in the topic of implicit bias in the first place. The data is pretty terms of both teaching in general and science in particular (since it is often considered the domain of the best and brightest). Extensive cognitive research over many years, as well as current research (Walter Gilliam at Yale) definitively show that white teachers monitor black and brown children (particularly boys) more closely and evaluate their behaviors more negatively even when no negative behavior exists. Pre-K suspensions for black and brown boys is through the roof and we are talking about 3, 4, and 5 year-old children. Teachers of older elementary/middle school students are also more likely to call on white boys, help them work through problems, and tend to evaluate their work less rigorously than they do girls' work. By high school (Neil Degrassi Tyson's quote was an illustrative example but there is plenty of research data to back it up) white teachers express much lower expectations of their black and brown students and this holds true even for students who excel in science and math. These biases continue into college, internships, and the field of science itself, an especially shocking thing to me who has\d always thought about science as a gender neutral/race neutral/culture neutral field. The teachers in Walter Gilliam's preschool study were absolutely shocked when their own data was shared with them. I like to think that no teacher, professor, or supervisor of a science professional would intentionally act on bias. But implicit bias is especially challenging because it exists below the level of conscious thinking. My goal in writing this blog post was to put the idea of implicit bias out on the that we can think about it, talk about, and be aware of it. Even if we don't feel like it applies to us personally, it is a very real issue and impacts students in a very dramatic way.
Thanks again for your reflective comment. I have been waiting for one and yours was the first (and maybe only!) which i think is an indication of what a difficult topic this is to talk about.

ClassHacks's picture

I am a senior at Stanford working on my capstone project in product design engineering, and our project really reflects the essence of what you talk about in your article, Cindy! (Our project attempts to address the lack of inclusivity and diversity in STEM, mostly as a result of these implicit biases and lack of "real-world" role models.)

We piloted an activity in a high school biology classroom, asking students to name all of the scientists they could think of, and they could only identify the typical Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, among a couple of others. Neil Degrasse Tyson was the one exception, and I really appreciate how you highlight his words in your article.

Your thoughts confirm what we have been seeing at an individual classroom level! Although you mention in your previous post that you are an early elementary school teacher, I agree with @Mike_Treanor that this is a conversation that needs to be had at the high school level, and is something that we are working on in our project. Thank you for bringing up this critical issue in discussion!

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