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A Narrow View: Scientific Curricula through the Western Lens

Author: Adriana Cunha Neves

What do Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, and Alexander Fleming all have in common? They are all very well-known white European scientists often featured and celebrated in Western STEM curricula.

In recent years, the Eurocentric view of science and technology adopted in the Western world has been criticised for its lack of fair representation of the many cultures and individuals worldwide contributing to modern science.

Undeniably, a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds shaped the history of science. Examples include mathematician Gladys Mae West on the satellite geodesy models, chemist Alice Ball’s research on leprosy treatment in the 20th century, and Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman who won the physics Nobel Prize. Tebello Nyokong, a South African chemist and distinguished professor at Rhodes University, is a contemporary scientist making notable breakthroughs in cancer treatment. However, the scientists I mention, and many others, are rarely represented in mainstream Western media or scientific curricula.

As an educator, I am constantly baffled by the realisation that my first-year students cannot name a single non-white scientist. Universities should open students’ minds, and foster collaboration with people from different communities and backgrounds.

The institution where I teach focuses on learner-centered education, celebrating diversity. We strive to provide education that engages all students in learning what is relevant, impactful, inclusive and meaningful. Unfortunately, such efforts at an institutional level alone are not enough. There is the need to implement them globally and incorporate them much earlier in the curriculum cycle. In my institution, approximately one-quarter of our science student cohort is non-white. However, the academic staff or the scholars cited in the curricula we teach do not reflect this diversity. The same is true of many European countries, to the detriment of students from minority groups’ college experience.

The structural racism shaping educational curricula needs addressing long before students reach university. Science has been for everyone since its conception. Universal validity is one of the pillars of scientific knowledge. If we, as lecturers, only present part of the story, there will be flawed conclusions. How can we inspire students from minority groups to pursue scientific careers, particularly in academia, if during their education, they never come in contact with any non-white academics or learn about a non-white scientist?

The time for making a difference is now, and everyone in the scientific community can help, particularly the ones involved in academia. Let’s talk about the achievements of scientists from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds in classes, in conversations, and on social media. Let’s celebrate diversity in STEM by crediting and representing all those contributing to it.

Although there is still a lot to be done, several promising initiatives advocate for curriculum changes at various levels of education. One such initiative is Native Scientists. Native Scientists encourage, support, and advocate for inclusive science education that highlights the diversity of the scientific community by celebrating and representing cultural and linguistic diversity in science.

Furthermore, many universities now have dedicated Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) departments to help tackle inequalities. EDI initiatives are dedicated to closing the gap between academia and society. Many projects exist in this area, including the Consent Framework Implementation, Disability Awareness and Accessibility, Gender Equality, LGBTQIA+ inclusion, Ethnicity Equality, and Speak Out. While such initiatives are steps in the right direction, there is still much to be done at all levels of education and across society to achieve an equal opportunities STEM community.

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