Science for all Americans? Science Education Reform and Mexican-Americans
Angela M. Barton, Margery D. Osborne
Prejudice has also been present in the development of science, but not many people know about what minorities go through to have their theories accepted. I feel that science, like any other area of society, needs a lot of revision. People, should not be ignored because of their culture. All people are capable of being an asset to the science community and should be allowed to do so, especially in science class (Julianna, journal entry, 4/94).
, a Mexican-American student writes, science, appears to have little regard for the cultural values of the Mexican-American student. Julianna speaks from the critical perspective that science and science education in schools operate from the assumption that all students enter school and society with the same cultural capital—the same knowledge, understandings
, values, desires (Bourdeau and Passeron, 1977; Freire, 1970). This assumption of uniformity reflects an Anglo, middle-class perspective and plays an active role in the reproduction of race, class and gender inequalities (Apple, 1979; Harding, 1991). There is little incentive as well as little effort towards helping teachers and curriculum developers recognize the cultural bias characteristic of this structure. As Julianna passionately describes, Mexican-American culture is implicitly regarded as inferior to Anglo, middle-class culture, even in the face of science education reforms aimed at "creating a science for all Americans" (Apple, 1992; AAAS, 1989).
The devaluation of Mexican-American culture is not specific to science education: it has been the case across the school curriculum. In fact, many Mexican-American students feel that their culture has been left out of all forms of school learning. As Patthey-Chavez (1993) and her study of Latinos in California, Menchaca (1989) and her study of Mexican-American cultural assimilation, and Reyes and Valencia (1993) and their study of the growing Latino population point out, Mexican-American students understand, at least implicitly, that schools affirm Anglo, middle-class culture to the disqualification of their own views of the world. Consequently, despite the best intentions of teachers, many Mexican-American students are failing in American schools, not because they lack the motivation or intellectual capacity, but rather because they resist the middle-class, Anglo ways of schools in favor of their own culture.
In this paper we present a story of how one of us (Barton) has attempted to create an inclusive science pedagogy—one which invites and values the experiences of Mexican-Americans adolescents and minorities. In the vignette, Barton describes her attempts to teach the gas laws2 to a multicultural group of urban learners3. In her teaching practice, Barton tries to make science accessible to all students, particularly Mexican-Americans and minority students who traditionally have been underrepresented in science. She argues through her teaching practice that an inclusive science education is possible only through valuing the student's home culture and personal experiences as raced, classed, and gendered people, and by making explicit and accessible to all students, the cultural capital of traditional science knowledge (content, culture, discourse practices of science). Specifically, in this paper, we argue that to make a science inclusive of "all Americans," the science experiences of those not traditionally part of Anglo, middle-class culture must be validated, and connections and divergences between such experiences and "real science" must be made explicit. We consider these arguments in light of the fact that in public schools in the United States, Mexican-Americans are disproportionately not being taught the culture of power of science or having their experiences and home culture valued (Sleeter and Grant, 1987; Davidson, 1994), and therefore automatically have their chances of succeeding in science removed.
April 18, 1994
About halfway through chemistry class, the students and I had just finished discussing the relationships between the four variables, temperature, pressure, volume and amount in ideal gases (the “gas laws”). This conversation was based on an earlier group assignment where the students explored ways in which they understood these gas laws in their lives at home and at work. I wanted to contextualize the gas laws within the students’ experiences and not to present them as abstract theories discovered and used only by "scientists." (This is how the students and I felt they were represented in the student text). The variety of ways that students were able to draw connections between the four variables were diverse: Lucita and Beth talked about how they understood the relationship between pressure, volume and amount of gases because of Beth's seven year-old son's whoopie cushion. Juan and Sol talked about how they understood the relationships between pressure, volume and temperature through working on automobile tires at home and at work. Reana, Maggie, Holia, Rico, and Bill related temperature and pressure in their experiences cooking rice, spaghetti and popcorn for their families or for themselves.
After our large group discussion I had the students work with formal lab equipment. I wished to help the students connect their personal understanding of the science with the traditional knowledge base. After approximately fifteen minutes I brought the class back together into a large group discussion to talk about how the lab equipment demonstrated the formal gas relationships and to make sure that the use of the lab equipment did not re-mystify the students' personal understandings. During the course of the class discussion, the following exchange occurred: I asked the class if anyone could relate the gas laws to the experiments.
Linda: The experiment with the metal ball wasn't that clear to me. I understand how pressure and temperature are related, but I couldn't see how the experiment worked. Can you explain it?
Lucita: This is just what I don't like about science. They always take ideas that are mostly understandable and explain them in ways which mean nothing to me. I would rather talk about popcorn than weird metal balls. [Heads nod, people are murmuring their agreement.
Sol: Its true, we do not use these things everyday, except maybe the syringe [people smirk, some laugh
], so I don't think that they help that much.
I responded sympathetically, telling the students about my own reluctance to introduce the equipment, my sense that somehow the abstractions involved in such experiments would alienate us and not connect to the understandings we were constructing. "Maybe I shouldn't have gotten this equipment out. Or maybe it's a good thing because this gave a chance to talk about this. What do you think? [People nod and seem to agree.
] Let’s finish talking about the different gas relationships, but we will go back to our own experiments. Juan what do you think? Were you able to draw any connections between what the groups talked about earlier and these experiments?"
Juan: I can see how the metal ball worked, it was like filling the car tire with air. It does make more sense that way.
In this vignette the scientific knowledge developed in this class has grown out of the students' interests and backgrounds, which are highly individual and culture-specific (Lemke, 1995)—cooking, child care, mechanical work. Working in groups, students theorized about how they have used their knowledge or understanding of the relationships between pressure, volume, temperature, and amount in an intuitive sense at home or work. They publicly shared with each other the ways in which their own set of lived experiences have provided them a context in which to name the gas laws, in ways different than (or, in some cases similar to) chemistry. Central to constructing new knowledge in class about the gas law relationships was the opportunity for students to articulate their own naming of the gas law relationships (with or with out the technical jargon). The "chemistry formulation" of these ideas was situated as secondary. We used these personal explorations to develop theories consistent with and connected to our personal observations, beliefs, and values. Furthermore, we then used our theorizing of the gas laws as a theoretical base from which to understand and then critique Western science. That is critical to this teaching. It is one thing to help students conceptually understand science from the standpoints of their own lives. It is quite another to help them use that personal knowledge to understand, then critique a powerfully long-standing and excluding discipline. This starting point is important in creating a science for all Americans—a science inclusive of Mexican-American students—because it starts from the experiences of the students, and uses their knowledge to build a science of their own and to see the connections between that science and the traditional discipline.
This has not always been the case in efforts to reform science education. Educational research agendas targeted at improving the performance of Mexican-American students in science reflect the belief that all students, all schools, are homogenous (Reyes and Valencia, 1993). Because schools are not homogenous, those students who deviate from the Anglo middle class culture, the culture of schools, are perceived as academically and socially inferior (Whitworth, 1988). By ignoring the demographic changes in the student population, these reforms have marginalized and alienated Mexican-American and other minority students. As argued by Brickhouse (1994), Mexican-American students, along with other minorities and women are often singled out to receive remedial help in science. Traditionally such remediation has not been successful because, as described earlier, Mexican-American students, for example, recognize the implicit assumption that ways of knowing they bring to school are devalued by the institutional ways of knowing (Davidson, 1994).
Recently, reformers in science education have emphasized through Project 2061, the importance of universal scientific literacy in American society (AAAS, 1989). The concept of scientific literacy hinges on both knowing certain things and thinking and talking certain ways in science. In a progressive response to this new call for scientific literacy, researchers in science education have argued that if students are to become scientifically literate then all students will need to have a thorough understanding of science, including its content, culture, and discursive practices (Anderson, 1991; Eichinger, Anderson, Palincsar, and David, 1991; Roseberry, 1994).
This reform effort has been hailed by contemporary science education researchers as critical to the Mexican-American school population as well as other minority students (Anderson 1991; Roseberry 1994). The reform stresses the importance of making the rules, structures, content, and discursive practices explicit and accessible to all students. Mexican-American students who enter schools without these will have the opportunity to be taught the knowledge and the specialized language and can then participate in science and school (Anderson, 1991, Michaels and O'Connor, 1990, Roseberry, Warren, and Conant, 1990).
Although it is critical to make the rules for participation explicit to language and cultural minority students, this reform, like those which preceded it, operates on four assumptions which, if not problematized, will result in the continued repression of Mexican-Americans in school science.
• First, Project 2061, like many other educational reforms, emerges from a meritocratic standpoint; it ignores the social and historical roles schools have played in reproducing race/ethnicity, class and gender inequalities (Harding, 1991; Reyes and Valencia, 1993).
• Second, the reform still embraces the belief that minorities are to blame for their lack of cultural capital in science education. By favoring only Anglo middle class cultural values, it implies that Mexican-American culture is inferior (Apple, 1992).
• Third, the reform is also based on the assumption that students from cultures, languages, and ways of knowing the world different from those that schools and science legitimate, will have fair and equal opportunities to succeed as long as the valued knowledge, social norms and accepted discursive practices of schools are made explicit (Patthey-Chavez, 1993; Apple, 1992; Gee, 1989; Delpit, 1988; Sleeter and Grant, 1987).
• Fourth it assumes that students will choose to adopt these when their own are shown inconsistent and (implicitly) inferior. When students do not it is assumed they are at fault not the instruction or the content of instruction (Foley, 1991; Apple, 1979).
These four assumptions are nestled in the politics of assimilation and meritocracy and use the construct of difference as a legitimation of dominant society rather than as a potential for revisioning both science and school practices. They require Mexican-American students to deny their cultural and linguistic heritage and to embrace a way of knowing which has, by its nature, defined Mexican-Americans as socially and intellectually inferior (Davidson, 1994). The national science education reform initiative, Project 2061
clearly states, that "teachers should . . . make it clear to female and minority students that they are expected to study the same subjects at the same level as everyone else and to perform as well" (AAAS, 1989, p. 151). This message implies that Mexican-American students as well as other minority students and females, need to work and act like their Anglo male counterparts not that either science or instruction will be modified to accommodate them. Although it can be argued that this is a call for teachers to engage all students, not just the Anglo middle class males, in the academic rigors of science, it can also be read as a call for teachers to encourage, if not require acculturation. In the very effort to create inclusive science education communities
, schools become agents of the policies of assimilation (Calabrese and Barton, 1995).
The assumptions of Project 2061 have focused time, attention, energy and money away from the real inequalities perpetuated in science education by locating the conversation in the discourse of equity -- how can we give all students access to the standard (read: Anglo middle-class) level? This reform effort is centrally faulty: it holds as its primary expectation that Mexican-American students participate in an educational structure and a political system designed to devalue them. Julianna, the student quoted at the start of this essay, clearly recognized this contradiction in her plea to have her own Mexican-American culture valued in science.
Despite the inclusive efforts of the scientific literacy movement, Mexican-American students, because their personal knowledge is disregarded in the practice of school, are still outsiders to science (Banquet, 1994). For example, because many Mexican-American students bring a different language and different cultural values and experiences to schools, many teacher unfairly interpret these experiences with negative preconceived ideas about student ability, interest and potential (Banquet, 1994; Oakes, 1990). Even when schools leave their high track science courses "open for all students," many Mexican-American students self select lower track coursework which lead to low paying careers such as technicians, hairdressers, and custodial duties because they have learned to accept lower aspirations and the stereotypes set for them (Banquet, 1994; Oakes, 1990), and they learn that what they have to say and believe is not important in school (Apple, 1992). As a result, Mexican-American students are prevented from entering the discourse of science on their own cultural terms because their place in science is still in "compensatory discourses" which "write differences as at risk and in need of recovery, remediation, special inquiries and policies" (Luke & Gore, 1992, p 6).
Building a new kind of scientific literacy
The vignette describing Barton’s teaching points towards a new and inclusive kind of scientific literacy, one which highlights its political nature. As pointed out by researchers such as James Gee (1990), Lisa Delpit (1988), Shirley Brice Heath (1983), Michaels and O'Connor (1990), and Roseberry, Warren, and Conant (1990), the concept of literacy and the characteristics which define the literate person are cultural constructs. Because scientific discourse is inherently ideological (Gee, 1989, 1990), it can become prescriptive in the sense that those in power can "lay down the rules for what is to count as knowledge and what is to count for meaningful discourse" (Longino, 1989 p. 22). The attainment of literacy reflects membership in the culture in power; if not born a member of that culture, the attainment of literacy becomes next to impossible unless the qualities of literacy are explicitly taught with grammar, values, differences to the home discourse pointed out and made central to pedagogical practices.
We believe that Mexican-Americans, like all students, need to be taught the culture of power explicitly in order to participate, but that this process needs to occur in a way that does not diminish their cultural heritage. As Delpit (1988) argues in the essay "The Silenced Dialogue," it is possible to value people's personal experiences and home culture as well as teach them the cultural capital of the culture of power if each are addressed explicitly in the classroom.
In Barton’s classroom, scientific knowledge was an outgrowth of the students’ individual and culture-specific experiences. Students, through the teachers help, generated canonically correct ideas about how gases behave by incorporating and valuing their ethnic, classed and gendered activities at home and work. These ideas, not the ideas of an Anglo, middle-class science, became the core curriculum. Through these sorts of activities students were presented with opportunities to explore the natural and physical world in ways continuous with their cultural heritage. Furthermore, by using personal theorizing of the gas laws as a theoretical base, the students were presented opportunities to critique the knowledge of Western science to locate instances of cultural and gender exclusivity. The conversation around the “weird metal ball” highlights that students knew a great deal of science through their lived experiences, but when the science was removed from their experiences, it became an alienating practice. As Juan and Lucita, two Mexican-American students, articulate, metal balls do not have a lot to do with what they experience at home or what they value. By having an opportunity to learn science in a setting that values culture-specific activities, both of these students found a place in science class to both learn and critique science.
Therefore, the question is raised, can Mexican-American students be encouraged to become scientifically literate in light of the current policies and the national report, Project 2061? As we have discussed in this paper, we believe that Mexican-Americans have been unfairly treated in school science. These students have been excluded from science, and from chances to engage personally and intellectually in the scientific community. To follow the recommendation of Project 2061 and other national reform efforts, would provide Mexican-American students with the needed and deserved opportunity to learn the discourse and practices of the scientific community. Yet, the very action of teaching students the canonically accepted rules for participating in science without knowledge of, or interest in, the valuable home culture of Mexican-American students ultimately denies Mexican-American students their personal value. Inasmuch, it also denies all students the cultural wealth of the Mexican heritage in school science. This sort of reform effort, because it requires acculturation for success, holds Anglo middle class ways as the unspoken standard.
The complex issue of teaching science for all Americans can be broken down into two main questions that must be addressed if science education is to become inclusive of Mexican-American students: How can science educators expand the vision of science education beyond an embodiment of Anglo middle class culture? How can we encourage Mexican-American science students to explore the natural world through their own ways of knowing and understanding and then through comparison and critique develop an understanding of the traditional science model? We believe that these questions can begin to be addressed through a series of recommendations:
First, we believe a reform movement designed to promote "science for all Americans" is detrimental when it is located in the politics of assimilation. Although the argument is strong for enculturating all students into the culture of science so that their careers paths in science will be open, we believe that this action promotes elitism at the expense of equality. The essence of an inclusive science lies in a desire and ability to value a multiplicity of cultural experiences, values and expectations. For example, the original culture of Mexican-American children can be studied in school science so that all students can learn about the contributions of their ancestors to science. As Banquet (1994) describes, students can be taught about the agriculture, geology, botany, irrigation systems, sun dials, calendars, nutritional and medicinal practices of the peoples of Central and South America. This would be a particularly important practice because a great deal of this knowledge has served as a source of knowledge for scientists today. Furthermore, because the methods employed in these original studies often are not considered traditional science, learning about these activities in science class, would provide a foundation from which students could begin to broaden the narrow Anglo middle class vision of science perpetuated in schools (Banquet, 1994; Weatherford, 1988). In Barton's class, Lucita and Juan, felt alienated from the gas laws because the connections between the science to be learned and their lives was not immediately clear. Students can be taught to critique the valued knowledge of Western science from the standpoint of their lives. Lucita, Jua n and others (with Barton's help) asked "why" their experiences were not invited by traditional science and then proceeded to make connections between the two; simultaneously enabling a critical understanding of both. Helping students to critique science can serve as a constant reminder to schools and to the community of scientists that if science is to be taught to all Americans, it needs also to be created by all Americans.
Second and following from the first, the life experiences of Mexican-American students need to be incorporated into the science class. Life experiences recounted in science class can promote an understanding of science less abstract, broaden the definition of science with which students come to class, broaden the forms of science practiced in class, and connect theories of school science to intuitive understandings. As Menchaca (1989) and Patthey-Chavez (1993) point out, the life experiences of Mexican-American students are different from their Anglo counterparts in part because of differences in home culture. Mexican Americans belong to culturally (and often linguistic) specific families, social clubs and churches; values, activities and experiences reflect this (Menchaca 1989). But, the life experiences of Mexican-American students are also different in part because the difference in power relationships between Anglos and Mexican-Americans—"a cultural prestige ranking system" (Menchaca, 1989, p. 204). Mexican American students come to school with knowledge of the negative stereotypes imposed on the Mexican cultural community, and the often (but not always) lower social and economic status maintained by the existing and discriminatory ideology of Euro-centric superiority (Davidson, 1994; Menchaca, 1989). By valuing the life experiences of Mexican-American students, teachers and students, in the struggle to create an inclusive science, can begin to “stand up” to the institutions of science and education by creating spaces from which to make explicit and problematic cultural biases in the teaching and learning of science.
Third, teachers, administrators, and curriculum writers need to develop cultural sensitivity and a critical perspective in order to find creative ways to explore the natural and physical world across cultural barriers. Because there are very limited teacher preparation activities which emphasize multiculturalism and the role of schools in promoting inequity across race, class and gender (Yates and Ortiz, 1991), teacher preparation programs in science, need to promote critical exploration of cultural assumptions in the discipline. We believe that this critical exploration must move beyond cursory glances at "cultural difference" in science learning; they must involve theoretical and practical explorations of the meaning and production of culture in science class as well as knowledge-power relationship maintained by the institution of science. This involves a recognition by all that traditional science embodies and reflects cultural assumptions itself: it is not "a-cultural."
Finally, we believe that participation in science by Mexican-American students would increase if science was taught in a way that reflected human life and experience. An inclusive science would be more conducive to minority students participation because it rejects traditional scientific practice as the only way, and postulates other viable ways of obtaining scientific understandings. Students will have the opportunity to explore personal, individual development of hypotheses and interpretations of results. Facts, procedures and theories will still exist, but they will be publicly acknowledged as value-laden. They will become guiding or reference points instead of potentially oppressive truths. This will also mean that students will be expected to approach the construction of knowledge from multiple perspectives including those that have been marginalized or utterly rejected: they will not feel they have to chose between their home culture and the culture of science and school. It will mean that they will not feel mastered by the material nor themselves be master of it. Finally, they will experience science in the classroom as they experience the world: holistically, interactively, passionately, and intellectually.
Looking to the future
Schools represent science—its structures, content, and discursive practices—as embodying the Anglo, middle-class perspective, thereby making participation for minority students problematic. Ideas students construct about science and identity within science are muddled up in societal expectations—for many Mexican-American students, doing school science in "acceptable ways" means embracing a world view not their own and which excludes their own. Therefore, helping students to understand science is only the first piece to creating a science education for all: Students must also be taught to be critical of science, and teachers must learn to value multiple perspectives within science. These two actions can help to change science, to build a "new science of the future."
Creating a "new science" is important for Mexican-American students: for too long Mexican-Americans have not had access to school science, critical thinking and problem solving in advanced science classes, and a chance to expand images of science and who can do science. In turn, the elitist and exclusive criterion that traditional science imposes to decide what constitutes science serves to impoverish society as a whole. Enlarging science by considering other values, goals and procedures than those historically defined as scientific would benefit us all (MacIntosh, 1983). A model which is used for Mexican-Americans is a model that can be used for other minorities as this society becomes increasingly multicultural so that science and science education does not continue to maintain Western Anglo ideology and so that it becomes a convergence of a multicultural values, beliefs and experiences