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Centering Race in the STEM Education of African American K–12 Learners

reviewed by Bhaskar Upadhyay - September 14, 2020

coverTitle: Centering Race in the STEM Education of African American K–12 Learners
Author(s): Glenda M. Prime
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433161761, Pages: 192, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

I have sat through many science/STEM and general education research presentations in conferences where scholars from all racial backgrounds have presented their works with so much passion, energy, and vitality that attending them become worthwhile. Yet when the collection of these presentations show up in an edited book volume, I find many of the personal touches and passions missing in the pages. They become a bland mixture of dry, academic-jargon-filled readings. However, Dr. Glenda Prime, the editor of Centering Race in the STEM Education of African American K-12 Learners, has been successful in putting together the conference presentations from scholars of STEM education in eight chapters, including her introduction to the volume. These chapters still capture the same vitality, passion, and personal touches of the research participants’ and the researchers’ lived experiences that a conference presentation brings, thus making the readings scholarly as well as lively.

The conference, Bridging Research and Practice in the STEM Education of African American K-12 Learners, funded by the Spencer Foundation and led by Glenda Prime, is the origin of this book. The contributors represent both mathematics and science education scholars who have been exploring African American challenges, struggles, and successes (albeit rare among this group) in STEM fields through various theoretical and historical lenses that situate race and racism as the central tenant of their arguments. The central point of the book is to contribute to the lagging research, policy, curriculum, teaching, and learning that explicitly tackles the racial nature of African American experiences in K-12 schooling and STEM teacher education programs. Prime calls for a “race-visible” pedagogy to tackle the racial discrimination experienced by African Americans in STEM. Prime states that race-visible pedagogy is that “which explicitly and implicitly addresses issues of race and racism both in the content of the curriculum and in all curriculum processes” (p. 2). Therefore, the chapters engage readers in the various ways that race, racism, and the racialized experiences of African Americans are manifested, leveraged, lessened, and valued in STEM education.

Prime explicitly called for the contributors to be “bold” and “adventurous” in centering each chapter so that the “racialized nature of STEM education and deficit perspectives and thinking” that pervade all levels of STEM education can be assessed, challenged, and questioned. She also asked the contributors to share successful African American experiences in STEM and to provide new thinking and tools to transform STEM education for this group. The book didn’t disappoint in its claim that “it offers both a framework for re-theorizing about the achievement of African American learners, [and] practical approaches to… access and success for this population” (p. 3).

The book starts with an introduction by Prime that provides a broad overview of the volume and the chapters, positioning the nature and purposes of why race has to be the central focus in any kind of rethinking of STEM education for African Americans. The first two chapters focus on the broad theoretical aspects of historical and current research in STEM education. Gale Seiler’s chapter not only provides an excellent overview of the nature and process of the conference, but also presents the power of whiteness and white narratives even on STEM researchers who want to dismantle these unjust historical narratives. She expresses concerns that even the researchers, teachers, and others who participated in this conference who are dedicated to improving the participation and success of African Americans could not escape the entrenched power of whiteness and white domination in their own interactions. Therefore, all the tools available must be used to both understand and dismantle the racialized nature of STEM education to increase African American success. Roni Ellington’s chapter draws from several theories and ideas based on critical and cultural theories to provide a “transformative framework for STEM education.” Ellington claims that a transformative framework is much better suited to the success of African Americans because it “moves beyond the curriculum-based reforms that have dominated the STEM landscape to one that is holistic, comprehensive, and integrated” (p. 61).

Julius Davis, Ramon Goings, and Keisha Allen question the anemic support Black male students receive in schools and how STEM (mathematics in particular) teacher education programs lack any preparation that educates mathematics teachers in how to support Black male students. They assert that the achievement gap and poor mathematics experiences of Black males in K-12 are used to discriminate against them in math courses, taking and building their mathematics identity. They present research reviews of both the successful and challenging math teacher preparation programs and explain why race- and identity-based math teacher education are much more effective in developing Black male students’ continuous interest in math.

Venessa Dodo Seriki highlights the need for an evaluation and research tool for teachers and researchers to examine science classroom actions and activities that captures both the culturally relevant and inquiry-based pedagogy (CRISP). Seriki draws from the Indigenous science education, critical, and inquiry learning theories to generate the CRISP tool. I hope Seriki will develop a more detailed observation tool to be more useful to teachers who are new to African American students in STEM classrooms.

Jomo Mutegi, Crystal Morton, and Leslie Etienne provide a much needed reconnection between Africa and African Americans by theorizing their piece on how science done by and done on African Americans get normalized through a white racial lens in which an African American is made unseen, unheard, uneducated, and unintelligent both in popular media and scientific outlets. Specifically Goduka’s (2005, as cited in this chapter) idea of “eZiko siPheka siSophula (eZiko)” (p. 73) helps connect the Africanness of the science education experiences of the book club participants (all girls) with the transformative and liberatory aspects of race disrupting science education that the authors envision.

Jacqueline Leonard, Scott Chamberlin, Elsa Bailey, Geeta Verma, and Helen Douglass utilize local places and community spaces as pedagogical environments to connect STEM with the lives of diverse groups of high school and college students through informal science. They draw from critical race and place-based theories to spotlight the voices of “African American” and “Mexican American” (p. 107) participants and the role of race in informal STEM education. Demographic labelling of participants as “Mexican” rather than “Latinx” or “Hispanic” felt misplaced in the larger narrative of the book and the chapter itself where dismantling structural racism was the core argument. On the other hand, the labeling of today’s youth as “Millennials” was refreshingly apt.

Felicia Moore Mensah’s chapter directly confronts the need for race-focused curriculum and pedagogy for teacher educators in higher education. She asserts that inclusion of literatures such as books and other publications that bring African American experiences into focus in science teacher preparation programs could provide avenues for race-based discourses and help build antiracist literacy in young STEM teachers. Mensah alerts to all STEM educators that “[STEM] curriculum has the ability to recreate race and racial inequity because students can read their existence or nonexistence in the textbooks and curricular materials used in the classroom” (p. 181); therefore, STEM teachers and STEM teacher education programs need to be explicit about racial invisibilities experienced by African Americans in schools.

I contend that the chapters in this book engage readers in stories about human experiences that are disproportionately framed, written, and sustained by race and racism. Race and racism are explicitly, critically, and deliberately theorized, explored, and critiqued in each of the chapters, thus providing a one stop shop to learn and engage with race in STEM education. Even though the book is about African American experiences in STEM, the book holds value for any STEM education researcher, teacher, educator, policymaker, or curriculum developer who wants to learn about and focus on race and equity in STEM teaching, learning, and engagement.


Goduka, N. (2005). Eziko: Sipheka sisophula. Nguni foundations for educating/ re-Searching for sustainable development. South African Journal of Higher Education, 19, 467–481.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 14, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23433, Date Accessed: 9/27/2020 5:20:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Bhaskar Upadhyay
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    BHASKAR UPADHYAY, Ph.D., is an associate professor of STEM/Science Education at the University of Minnesota in the College of Education and Human Development. His research is in the area of equity, social justice, and sociopolitical consciousness in STEM education focusing on marginalized groups in mostly urban school contexts. His research on equity and social justice includes both the U.S. and international contexts. Currently, he is leading a National Science Foundation funded project on enhancing STEM experiences of Indigenous students and developing a citizen science curriculum for the urban middle and high school. His recent publications included research in Indigenous schools in Nepal, immigrant family experience in STEM, moral nature of STEM engagement, and a co-edited special issue on “rethinking equity in science teacher education” tackling issues of equity, diversity, sociopolitical consciousness, and culturally relevant pedagogy. His works are published in journals such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education, The Urban Review, International Journal of Science Education, and Cultural Studies of Science Education. He is currently co-editing a book with Femi Otulaja and Pauline Chinn titled Stories for sustainable and resilient communities: STEM education from Indigenous perspectives to be published by DIO Press.
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