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Foothill endeavor aims to upend scientist stereotypes

Jeff Schinske
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Foothill College biology instructor Jeff Schinske, standing, teaches class. He has a developed a hypothesis that students need to see themselves as belonging in the field in order to succeed.

Jeff Schinske approaches problems like the scientist that he is. So when he noticed that even in his own biology classroom at Foothill College minorities were not doing as well as their more privileged peers, he wanted to find out why, and he wanted to fix it.

Schinske developed a hypothesis: Students need to see themselves as belonging in the field in order to succeed.

If students couldn’t imagine that they, too, were biologists, they didn’t do as well. But Schinske, as a scientist, knows that scientists really do come from many ethnicities and income levels and countries.

“We have these stereotypes of scientists that are really powerful,” he said. “People are really struck when they realize scientists are not like that.”

To test his hypothesis, he developed a way for students to see themselves as scientists.

Schinske created assignments that got students to read about a scientist who doesn’t fit the stereotype of scientists – maybe a woman, maybe a woman of color, maybe a woman of color who’s queer and grew up poor. Then the students answer a couple of questions about that person’s research, which ties into what they’re learning in the curriculum.

Schinske found that the assignments changed the students’ vision of who a scientist is and led them to identify as a scientist.

He published a peer-reviewed journal article with his findings, and he was recently awarded a grant, along with another researcher from San Francisco State University, to create the assignments for students at middle and high schools around the Bay Area.

Thanks to funds from the Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, one of the National Institutes of Health, next year Foothill students will be offered a class where they’ll create “scientist spotlights” and learn about stereotype threat, health inequalities, implicit bias and other topics.

The scientist spotlights they create will be tied to current California curriculum, so teachers at the local middle schools, high schools and community colleges can work the spotlights into the day without having to add another lesson on top of their already full schedules.

Schinske’s a biology professor – at many colleges, he would be doing biology research, not education research. But he said that at Foothill, teachers are committed to stepping outside their fields to figure out what works for students.

Plus, he was curious about the educational outcomes of his students.

“Being a scientist, I need to scratch that itch of doing science,” he said.

Schinske hopes that eventually he can expand the program to an online database of lessons, so that teachers from anywhere can access the homework assignments that talk about diverse scientists. He said he gets multiple emails every week asking for the assignments, from teachers across the United States.

“If we have complex questions to answer about health, about climate change, about whatever it might be, then we desperately need more people thinking about that from different angles, not more of the same people thinking about them from the same angle,” he said.

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