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Dr. Catherine Quinlan is a science education researcher and assistant professor at Howard University, one of the premier Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States. She recently discussed with Vernier the crucial work of creating culturally representative science curricula for both K–12 and college students. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As an educator, how has the pandemic affected you?
It made me more adaptable. In some ways, it became an opportunity to explore and to consider other avenues. It did put a damper on my initial data collection, but whenever you are forced to be creative, something better comes out of it.
How would you describe your professional mission?
My mission is to create meaningful and authentic representation that Black children can possibly identify with their own sense of self. My goal is to encourage connections with Black narratives, heritage, and lives—to promote positive identity formation in Black children with what defines them as quintessentially Black. When I think about “culturally representative,” I’m really thinking about Black cultural representation and narratives in the science curriculum.
How are you working toward accomplishing this mission?
I want to make sure that our cultural narratives and heritage are meaningfully integrated into the science curriculum.
When I first started looking at creating culturally representative science curriculum, I noticed that we often focus on Black scientists. And that’s great—we need representation. But I wanted to know how it could go beyond that to everyday life.
My research focuses on including the narratives and lived experiences of African Americans, more specifically, African American Gullah Geechee on the Gullah Geechee islands off the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. And in recording those narratives, I wanted to extract science concepts and understand what emerging themes would be supported by the Next Generation Science Standards.
I chose the Gullah Geechee community because they retained a lot of their Black African heritage due to living in that isolation. It was like a bridge; I got a little bit of Africa by going to South Carolina. And in some ways, I related to them a great deal because of my own upbringing and heritage.
What is an example of a culturally representative science curriculum you’ve developed?
I’ve done some research on sugar and chemistry. When I visited one of the Gullah Geechee museums, they still had the old sugar mill. The historian I interviewed tapped into past narratives by reenacting what they did back then with the sugar mill. It made me think, in terms of including these narratives, that we don’t really involve sugar when we’re doing chemical reactions. So, part of this culturally representative science curriculum will involve chemical reactions with sugar, and it will incorporate new approaches to writing equations.
But I think the bigger part of my curriculum is the overall correlation to food—specifically, the foods that came from Africa that have influenced Western culture. It’s something we don’t often talk about. Most people don’t realize where a lot of those foods came from.
So, this is my focus:
How do we bring into our science curriculum the cultural resources of Black heritage so that we can get to know and understand our own contributions and so others can know and understand what our contributions are?
What impact, if any, has the pandemic had on your work?
I think the pandemic caused everyone to reevaluate our lives and hone in on what’s important. For me, the pandemic really pushed me to recognize the importance of my work and how much I needed to get it into a final form that others can use. And that’s what I’ve done. For example, I’ve created inquiry activities that my students have completed.
I teach the science methods course for pre-service elementary education majors at Howard University. I wanted to begin by understanding how pre-service students of Black heritage would benefit from this and what they would learn. It’s been an amazing journey to work with students, learn from students, and to see the impact.
How would you define “culturally representative science curriculum” for both K–12 and college students?
I would define that as using a “glass half-full” approach to exploring ways to use phenomena that emanate from Black cultural resources and Black heritage.
Most of all, it’s crucial to have Black representation that empowers, as well as facilitates, discovery in science—in a way that allows students to gain “aha” moments about themselves and that are good for the Black psyche.
I also think the most important part of this work is, “How do I help people—not just Black people but white people and people from other cultures—to have a ‘glass half-full’ perspective?” Because interactions are positive when perspectives are positive.
What steps can schools (both at the K–12 and postsecondary level) take to develop and implement a culturally representative science curriculum, both now and post-pandemic?
At the leadership level, it’s hard for schools to have a positive perspective on this if their leadership is negative. Additionally, if you’re at a school that says, “Include diversity,” but your leadership doesn’t understand what that means, or isn’t taking the steps to help you understand what that means, I don’t think you’ll get very far.
I also think we all need to look back at history and allow ourselves to be sober. Because we can’t move forward without acknowledging the past and the continuing impact of the past.
At the policy level, cultural representation must be included in standards—and I’ve started to create very specific science standards. It’s important to think about how we can do this in a way that everybody benefits. Our past and future are so intertwined; we need to encourage identity formation in everyone. That allows us to consider and confront our past.
To learn more about Dr. Quinlan’s research, check out
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