Feb. 19, 2021

New study will unearth experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour students in Western Canada

UCalgary scholar Jennifer D. Adams aims to transform STEM culture by sharing accounts of marginalization and survivance
Jennifer D. Adams aims to transform STEM culture by sharing accounts of marginalization and survivance
Jennifer D. Adams believes greater diversity in STEM is essential for Canada to remain competitive

Creativity and STEM Canada Research Chair Jennifer D. Adams is heading up a new research project that will explore the experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors at western Canadian post-secondary institutions. Additionally, the study will shed light on the reasons why this community remains underrepresented in both STEM learning and the workforce.

Dr. Adams, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Science and Werklund School of Education, says there is a surprising scarcity of data on these issues; what little material she has found is limited to a handful of dissertations. This gap exists, in part, simply because the information has never been collected.

Even when looking for demographics about percentages of students from different racialized groups in STEM majors, it did not exist,” says Adams. “At best, students are all lumped into a ‘visible minority’ category, which is problematic on many levels. Mainly it does not account for the nuances of underrepresentation amongst the different racialized and minoritized groups.”

Education institutions benefit from diversity

The goals of the project are to empower BIPOC students in their STEM pursuits, contribute to policies and structures that support diverse students in STEM, and create a community of researchers and policy-makers that will work toward equitability at all points on the STEM pathway.

Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Adams has done similar work with BIPOC students and science teachers there and expects the findings of this current study will align with her previous research. She found that BIPOC students in the United States feel marginalized, are subject to microaggressions and experience a phenomenon she calls “visibly-invisible.”

“Visible because of their presence as a BIPOC person, but invisible in their exclusion from discussions, networking and collaboration opportunities.”

Despite these challenges, Adams says her work will not dwell on deficits but aim to uncover frameworks of success and survivance; further, it will provide guidance to post-secondary institutions for transforming exclusive cultures and offering meaningful support to students who have been historically marginalized. The results will benefit the academy as socially diverse groups produce more citations, equitable peer review, creativity in scientific approaches, greater scientific credibility and public acceptance.

Range of perspectives necessary for competitive economy

Pluralism is equally important in K-12 classrooms, says Adams, recalling a story of a herpetologist teaching a group of young girls about turtles. When asked whether different reptiles and animals had periods, the instructor said she did not have the answer because scientists had not pursued that information.

“The lesson in this is that if participation in the STEM disciplines remains narrow, only the issues that are important to a smaller range of people will be perceived as important enough to address.”

It is a false premise that science is objective and neutral. Like many other social phenomena, science is a culture and is therefore shaped by discourses that determine the kinds of questions pursued, data collected and analytical frameworks. So, ‘who’s asking’ is important.

Adams says that while this research is long overdue, she credits the Black Lives Matter movement for compelling her to extend her equity, diversity and inclusion work in this direction as well as for the heightened interest in BIPOC contributions to STEM in Canada. Contributions, she believes, it is in the best interest of the nation to draw upon.

Canada's greatest potential can only be realized when all people are welcomed into the laboratory, the classroom and the field. We all benefit from the wide range of perspectives and talent that make our research and our society better. In a competitive global economy, Canada can't afford to leave talent on the sidelines. More importantly, diverse participation in science is critical for fostering healthy communities and planetary well-being.”

Jennifer Adams is recruiting undergraduate and graduate BIPOC students majoring in STEM fields to participate in the research. Participants will be required to complete a survey and followup interview.