Bringing Black History Month to STEM Classes

Black History Month is reasonably well-established in language arts and social studies curricula. Come February, English teachers pull out poems by Phyllis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou; history teachers take on the civil rights movement or abolition. In other subjects, however, Black History Month tends to be overlooked—but that doesn’t mean it has to be.

Given the underrepresentation of minorities, particularly black students, in STEM fields, an increased focus on black scientists and mathematicians could have a huge impact. On Scientific American, biologist Danielle Lee writes, “Put simply, members of under-represented communities want to see themselves in these roles. They want to know who the achievers are.”

In the sciences, there are of course the notable examples to draw from. Noted botanist and inventor George Washington Carver, known in particular for his work with peanuts, is one of the most-mentioned black scientists. Astronaut and doctor Mae Jemison tends to pop as the sole representative of black women. (Jemison herself was inspired in part by one of the few black female role models she saw represented in society as a child: Lieutenant Uhura of “Star Trek.”)

But while Jemison and Carver are both certainly worth studying, they are far from the only ones. Daniel Hale Williams is a natural fit for a unit on human anatomy—he’s generally recognized as conducting the first open-heart surgery, as well as opening the first interracial hospital in the United States.

Elsewhere in the field, Vivien Thomas is credited with developing the Blalock-Taussig shunt, a device used to correct a heart defect that restricts the flow of oxygen. Thomas’s story—that of a high school-educated black man who managed to make a name for himself at a then-segregated John Hopkins—is fascinating enough that it was the subject of an HBO movie starring Mos Def and Alan Rickman.

To read the rest of this article, published in Education Week, please click here.