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Exploring microaggression in science education

Kathryn Kao

April 24, 2017

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Oftentimes, researchers must use radically different measures to break new ground in higher education.

This "high risk-high payoff" approach to supporting new, exploratory work will allow Mary Atwater, a professor in the department of mathematics and science education, to develop a potentially transformative venue for reducing racial microaggression, or the subtle, indirect or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group, in science education.

Awarded by the National Science Foundation, Atwater's $229,061 Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) will examine new ways to broaden participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields for science education faculty of African or Latino ancestry.

"There has been little research in this area in science education," said Atwater, who is currently the Sachs Distinguished Lecturer in residence at Teachers College, Columbia University. "In fact, there is very little microaggression research that has been done in which the participants are people of European American descent."

While prior research has focused almost exclusively on faculty and students of color within higher education, Atwater will be using various methods in her study, "Exploring Racial Microaggression in Science Education," to examine microaggressors at seven institutions of higher education with science education programs.

Past research shows that science and science education faculty and students of African or Latino ancestry regularly face intentional and unintentional acts of racial microaggressions that often negatively impact whether they remain in science education departments and STEM courses.

Since many of these acts of racial microaggression come from administrators, colleagues, and peers, the EAGER grant will serve as an important step in directly addressing microaggression in higher education.

In addition to identifying any activities that might lead to microaggressions, Atwater's study will look at why microaggressors are either aware or unaware of their acts, while also collecting data about policies that have been used by colleagues and administrators to minimize racial microaggressions.

"This grant can have an impact on the number of African American and Latino/a faculty members we have in science education," said Atwater. "And it can have an impact on the kinds of science educators that come out of these programs, as well as the students who might consider having science or STEM-related careers."

With the help of a few graduate students at Columbia University and the University of Georgia, Atwater will use critical race theory to frame the study, as well as questionnaires, implicit attitude tests, interviews and other archival documents to acquire data for the study.

"Racism can function at different levels and appear in many forms," said Atwater. "When people act on their prejudices and they are powerful, then that's when you can have very negative effects. Microaggression can have an impact on students and faculty members in science education."