Amid growing awareness that promoting diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields is key to both equity and doing more insightful work, a project led by the University of Maryland examines potential influences on black students at the intersection of race, religion, and science.
The project, funded by a three-year, $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is the first comprehensive study to examine how these complex dynamics influence the pathways of black undergraduate and graduate students in STEM.
Until now, studies of how students perceive the tension between religion and science have been done without specifically considering the perspectives of black students, said Julie J. Park, associate professor at UMD. But with approximately 82% of black people in the United States reporting a religious affiliation – more than any other racial/ethnic group – increasing African-American representation in science-related fields requires a better understanding of the values and perceptions of the population that universities, other research institutions and businesses hope to attract.
“It is important to recognize that how religion affects the lives of people in a community is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ phenomenon,” she said. “Our research has critical implications for supporting Black students in STEM and we hope it will help the scientific community recognize the complex ways in which religion affects people’s lives and their engagement with science.”
Park is conducting the research in collaboration with colleagues at Howard University, Arizona State University and Middle Tennessee State University.
“There is a common concern that if a student pursues a science degree, they will encounter challenges during their studies that will compromise their religious faith, especially in areas like biology, in which topics like evolution and bioethics are often taught and the majority of instructors are not religiously affiliated,” said Elizabeth Barnes, teaching assistant professor of biology at Middle Tennessee State.
“Spirituality and religion are salient aspects of the lives of many black students,” added Keon M. McGuire, associate professor of higher and post-secondary education at Arizona State. “We must consider the Black Christian perspective and the diversity of spiritual and religious beliefs among Black students if we are to increase their participation in STEM.”
The research team plans to interview black undergraduate students majoring in STEM at several traditionally white institutions and a historically black college or university. They will also interview black students who are not majoring in STEM to determine if their religious perspectives or experiences have discouraged them from pursuing or obtaining a STEM-related degree, as well as black graduate students in STEM to identify how black individuals negotiate perspectives on religion. and science as they progress through advanced training.
The research team will use the findings to develop and implement new ways to engage Black students in STEM, such as increasing partnerships with Black churches and mosques, as well as creating training resources. and professional development for K-12 teachers and educators.
“Black student participation in STEM remains woefully low,” said Robert Palmer, professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard. “Our findings may have important implications for helping higher education institutions and pre-K-12 schools create better conditions to champion Black student success in STEM.”