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Scientists in the Making: Promoting African American Students’ Interest in Science through Inquiry-based, Culturally Relevant Instruction



The low number of African Americans pursuing careers in the natural sciences has been (and continues to be) a concern for science educators. While science educators have sought to explain the science-career decisions of
Scientists in the Making: Promoting African American Students’ Interest in Science
through Inquiry-based, Culturally Relevant Instruction
Jomo W. Mutegi
Indiana University, IUPUI
The low number of African Americans pursuing careers in the natural sciences has been
(and continues to be) a concern for science educators. While science educators have sought to
explain the science-career decisions of African Americans through research (Hager & Elton,
1971; Lewis, 2003; Lewis & Collins, 2001; Lewis & Connell, 2005; Lewis, Pitts, & Collins,
2002; Maple & Stage, 1991), we have also worked to increase African American representation
in science through various intervention programs (Barisa & Holland, 1993; Carmichael &
Sevenair, 1991; Hrabowski, 1999; Maton, Hrabowski, & Schmitt, 2000; Tobias, 1992).
Unfortunately, the problem has been a resilient one and African Americans (comprising fewer
than 2% of practicing, Ph.D.-holding scientists since 1977) continue to be underrepresented in
science and science-related careers (National Science Board, 2000).
Many scholars see promise in the current reform movement as articulated in the National Science
Education Standards (1996). Some researchers have found that standards-based teaching
practices (particularly inquiry-based instruction) lead to improved attitudes, interest, and general
achievement among African American students (Brownstein & Destino, 1994, 1995; Kahle &
Damnjanovic, 1994; Kahle, Meece, & Scantlebury, 2000; Wandersee & Griffard, 1999). Khale,
Meece, and Scantlebury (2000), for example, examined the science achievement and attitudes of
a sample of African American, middle school students throughout Ohio. Their findings indicated
that students whose teachers frequently used standards-based instruction exhibited more positive
attitudes and achievement in science than their counterparts.
At the same time there is a substantial cadre of educators calling for reform in the
pedagogy of African-American students (Cochran-Smith, 2001; Giddings, 2001; Howard, 2001;
Hubbard & Mehan, 1999; Middleton, 2001; Mutegi, 2011; Shujaa, 1995). Foremost among these
reformers are those advocating culturally relevant pedagogy (e.g. Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1995).
In this article I describe the Carson Institute for Science Research and Learning (CISRAL),
Contemporary Issues in Education Research 51
which is an after-school science workshop that enjoins principles of inquiry-based science
instruction with culturally relevant teaching practices in order to increase African American
students’ interest in science and science-related careers.
Description of CISRAL
The Carson Institute for Science Research and Learning operates in a public, inner-city
middle school as part of an after-school arts program. It is named for Dr. Benjamin Carson – the
well-known Professor of Neurosurgery at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. It
is the result of collaboration between the University of Pittsburgh, Arsenal Middle School, and
the St. Mary’s Lawrenceville Arts Program (a community-based arts program for inner city
children). CISRAL was one of several programs that comprised the after-school offerings. In
addition to science, students were also able to study origami, ballet, sewing, entrepreneurship,
and photography.
CISRAL was available to all students who attended Arsenal Middle School. Over 30
students expressed interest and attended throughout year-one. Approximately 69% were male
and 31% were female. In addition, 20% of the students were sixth-graders, 70% were seventh-
graders, and 10% were eight-graders. All students but one (97%) were African American; there
was one Caucasian student. Students who attended CISRAL (as with all of the programs) did so
voluntarily. And while staff encouraged consistent participation, there were a number of students
whose attendance was sporadic. Of the 30 students participating, seven attended the program
consistently throughout the entire school year.
CISRAL Activities
As stated, the objective of CISRAL was to draw on principles of inquiry-based science
instruction and culturally relevant teaching practices to increase African American students’
interest in science and science-related careers. To this end CISRAL was designed to represent a
microcosm of the scientific community. Students who attended the Carson Institute were referred
to as junior scientists, and their job was to engage in science research. Teachers at the Carson
Institute were referred to as senior scientists. Their job was also to conduct science research
acting as facilitators for junior scientists. Junior and senior scientists conducted research by
52 Fall 2011
raising research questions, designing investigations to answer those questions, and presenting the
results to their peers.
Each semester began with a one- to two-week orientation in which senior scientists
described expectations to students, instructed students in laboratory safety and use of laboratory
equipment, and reinforced the model of learning promoted in CISRAL. The orientation
concluded with senior scientists leading the entire group of students in conducting a research
project, beginning with the identification of a research question and ending with the presentation
of findings. Following the orientation junior scientists were permitted to begin the research
process by conducting their own investigations.
During the fall semester, five students completed research projects from beginning to
end. In one research project on magnetism a student identified and described various patterns of
magnetic forces using magnets and iron filings. In a second project a student with an interest in
black holes wrote an essay on what was known and unknown about black holes. The initial
reaction of senior scientists was that this project did not fulfill the spirit of CISRAL since it did
not involve “inquiry.” However, after careful consideration it was concluded that since the
student was interested in the topic, and since not all scientific inquiry involved laboratory
manipulation of materials the project was acceptable. As it turns out the student prepared an
extremely insightful report. Other students conducted investigations of the effect of light on plant
growth, the electromagnetic properties of everyday materials, and weather patterns related to
During the fall semester students expressed discomfort with the high level of autonomy
required for completing the research projects. In response, spring semester projects were
conducted in small research groups comprised of three to four junior and senior scientists. This
format allowed greater collaboration and input from both junior and senior scientists. As a result
of this change, spring semester projects tended to be more sophisticated than those of the first
semester. One second semester research project dealt with electricity. The research group
conducting this project used a battery as an energy source to test the conductivity of several
solutions. They also used a light bulb as an indicator of whether a circuit was made complete by
the various solutions. This research group suggested that, should this project be repeated, it
would be better to use an ammeter rather than a light bulb in order to obtain more precise data.
Contemporary Issues in Education Research 53
Other projects included a study of the effect of temperature on the speed of sound, and a study of
the degree to which soap could inhibit bacterial growth.
There were two forums through which students were required to share findings with their
peers. First, biweekly colloquia were held in which all junior and senior scientists gave updates
on their research projects. The format was informal, patterned after a round table discussion.
These forums provided participants an opportunity to ask questions of one another, deepen their
understanding of their own research, and gain insight into the work being conducted by others.
Second, at the end of each semester, research seminars were held in which students from
throughout the after-school program were invited to see formal presentations of the students’
work. These forums provided the same benefits as the colloquia and served the added function of
piquing the interest of students participating in other programs.
Central Features
Inquiry-based science instruction shares many features with culturally relevant teaching
practices and as such they are an ideal fit. Two features that I will discuss in relation to CISRAL
are ownership of knowledge and establishing a community of learners. In reference to inquiry
and the ownership of knowledge, reform literature provides the following guidelines:
1. Learners are engaged by scientifically oriented questions.
2. Learners give priority to evidence, which allows them to develop and evaluate
explanations that address scientifically oriented questions.
3. Learners formulate explanations from evidence to address scientifically oriented
4. Learners evaluate their explanations in light of alternative explanations,
particularly those reflecting scientific understanding.
5. Learners communicate and justify their proposed explanations. (National
Research Council, 2000, p. 24-27)
It is clear from these guidelines that the perspective presented is one wherein the onus for
constructing knowledge resides with the student. Accordingly, learners are engaged; learners
give priority, develop, and evaluate; learners formulate; learners evaluate; and learners
communicate and justify. Similarly, culturally relevant teaching emphasizes the students’ role in
knowledge construction, “...culturally relevant teaching attempts to help students understand and
54 Fall 2011
participate in knowledge-building.” Further, knowledge is “continuously recreated, recycled and
shared by teachers and students (Ladson-Billings, 1994, p. 81). These commitments require a
different approach from what is found in traditional instruction, where the teacher is the owner of
knowledge and the onus is on him or her to “g
the “correct” answers to students.
CISRAL drew from this idea by encouraging junior scientists to explore and learn to find
answers themselves. Senior scientists would often solicit the thoughts and opinions of junior
scientists by constantly asking, “What do you think?” and “Why?” Moreover, they emphasized
that there is not always a “right” answer when conducting investigations. One senior researcher
was fond of saying that “There may not be a right answer, but the best answer is the one that you
can justify and defend.” The willingness to modify the program structure (specifically the
formation of research teams) based on input from junior scientists is another way that CISRAL
drew from this idea.
While CISRAL activities promote mutually shared knowledge, recognition is also
important to knowledge creators. Senior scientists were watchful for opportunities to defer to
junior scientists who had exhibited expertise in a given area and also to underscore the
accomplishments of scientists throughout history where appropriate. The following vignette
provides an example:
During one group discussion a senior researcher began explaining that experiments do
not always proceed as planned. Remembering an incident from the previous semester she
asked Tameka to share her own experience. Tameka then described how she had become
frustrated that her science experiment was not yielding any discernable results. She was
growing plants in different environments and decided to take them home over the holiday
to continue her project. During that period her younger sibling knocked over some of the
plants. Initially, Tameka thought that she would have to quit attending CISRAL because
she had “messed up her experiment.” One of the senior researchers encouraged her to
bring in her toppled plants. As it turns out they were together able to identify some
differences in the plants.
This experience gave Tameka a degree of expertise in acceptable experimental procedures that
she was able to share.
Contemporary Issues in Education Research 55
A second feature of CISRAL is that it represented a community of learners. Science
education reform literature emphasizes the importance of community among learners of science.
Accordingly, “Community-centered environments require students to articulate their ideas,
challenge those of others, and negotiate deeper meaning along with other learners. Such
environments encourage people to learn from one another” (National Research Council, 2000 p.
122). This emphasis is also a trait of culturally relevant teaching. Ladson-Billings (1994) points
out that, “Encouraging a community of learners means helping the students work against the
norm of competitive individualism. The teachers believe that the students have to care, not only
about their own achievement but also about their classmates’ achievement” (p. 69). CISRAL
drew from this idea through the biweekly colloquia, research seminars, and the collaborative
research teams. These forums wereideal venues through which junior scientists could speak
equally as colleagues and learn to give and accept constructive criticism.
Lessons Learned
One of the greatest challenges faced by CISRAL staff was the low percentage of students
who had consistent attendance. Exit interviews with CISRAL students indicate that the most
significant factor inhibiting student participation was the high degree of self-sufficiency expected
of students. As mentioned, students were expected to raise research questions, design means of
answering those questions and present findings to their peers. Although they had guidance,
students reported that this task was daunting. There was a sense of uncertainty about what they
should do when engaging in the research process, and there was a feeling of isolation when
conducting the research. One male student made the following comment:
It would be better if we covered a general area in a specific time, like a week or two weeks or
something. One group could talk about bacteria. Then one group could talk about citric acid.
Then another group could do different kinds of bases or computers. Then the next week you
could go to different things like rotate. And everybody could present at the end of the week.
A female student added,
When you work individually there’s lots of different things going on at different times and
you have to switch over to something else. But if you do everything in a group then you have
56 Fall 2011
different opinions that everybody can give on the same topic. And it’s more fun working with
more people.
The insight of these students represents a general sentiment of those interviewed and also
illustrates that the inquiry-based science instruction originally planned did not take into account
students’ preparedness for this type of instruction. Consequently, some students did not feel part
of CISRAL to the degree that they would attend regularly. Previous research concerning new
initiatives or reform efforts has found that in order to be successful, all participants (teachers,
students, parents, and administrators) must buy into the new initiative or reform (e.g. Doherty,
1993; Perreault & Isaacson, 1996). The experiences of year-one confirmed the importance of not
only matching science education reform with contemporary methods of teaching African
American children, but also matching those reforms with the students they are intended to serve.
As the science education community (a) moves to extend our emphasis on inquiry-based
instruction and (b) continues to advocate for culturally responsive pedagogy the experience of
CISRAL provides an encouraging peek at the opportunities available to us. These need not be
incompatible ends. Instead they serve as firm guideposts towards which we can move as we
work to make science a more integral part of our students’ lives.
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