Consider the following quote from 15-year-old Jazmyn: 

The racist stereotype is that Black people are not listening to science. That is not true. Maybe it’s the other way around, like science is not listening to us. I wish that people could see what I could do, like what I am doing at home. Making homemade hand sanitizer, making masks, caring for my elders. I don’t want to act White. I don’t want people to tell me I’m not White enough. I want you to know how I feel as a young Black girl in America and in STEM. I want to feel like I can be me in STEM and have that celebrated. 

Jazmyn calls us to recognize her: a bright, caring Black girl. She asks us to consider how and why we need to work toward social justice in STEM, beyond helping students fit into the science education system as it is already constituted. 

The NGSS states, “All individuals can engage in and learn complex subject matter…when supportive conditions and feedback mechanisms are in place and the learner makes a sustained effort.” However, who is teaching or learning, what is taught and why, and how outcomes are defined and measured can still position some youth as marginal in STEM. 

What Is Rightful Presence?

Rightful Presence emerges from critical justice studies of guest/host relationships in sanctuary cities. It highlights why it’s important to support new forms of power sharing for re-authoring rights rather than simply extending rights, which in effect, reproduces unequal power. 
We extend this thinking to classrooms, where students are guests. What does it mean to have rights extended? What would it mean to re-author rights with students? Three guiding tenets frame how Rightful Presence might be enacted in classrooms.

Tenet 1—Allied Political Struggle Is Integral to STEM Learning: The Right to Re-Author Rights. Teachers and students work together to challenge and transform what participation in STEM entails in ways that humanize participation and value students as cultural and whole people. 

Tenet 2—Rightfulness Is Claimed Through Presence: Making Justice/Injustice Visible.Youths’ whole lives become a visible part of learning upon which meaningful learning is built. 

Tenet 3—Collective Disruption of Guest/Host Classroom Relationalities. The responsibility for disruption and transformation is borne by all members of the learning community, teachers and students alike, not just the marginalized. 

Bringing Rightful Presence Alive in STEM Classrooms

To support students’ rightful presence, we have been working with teachers to incorporate an approach called Pedagogies of Community Ethnography (PCE).

PCEs support teachers not just in noticing students’ lives, but also in doing so differently—shifting not only what they see, but also where they see, and to see the seen anew. PCEs involve a) a stance that community knowledge/practice is a valuable part of STEM knowing/doing; b) new roles for students and teachers as co-learners of the intersections of community wisdom/STEM; and c) instructional moves that create spaces for eliciting and making visible community wisdom, and which refract these forms of knowing/being into STEM learning, disrupting settled expectations for who/what it means to learn STEM.

Consider how Ms. K. supported students in a six-week engineering design challenge focused on energy transformations and sustainable communities.  

A group of three students designed and built a “light-up limbo stick” after surveying their school community. They identified “a lack of fun” as “the biggest” classroom sustainability concern.  The stick is made up of 23 LEDs affixed to a meter stick, and powered by a hand-crank generator. 

“A lack of fun” directly referenced unequal power and its connections to learning, as one student noted: “When kids are not having fun, they get bored, fall asleep, and do not do their homework. They then get bad grades and [are] tracked into lower seventh-grade classes.” 

The students generated this idea after analyzing and graphing survey, interview, and observational data related to their inquiry into classroom sustainability. Their analysis revealed that a) “everybody likes to limbo,” b) they had “never limbo-ed at school,” and c) students only went to recess once a day and wished to have more movement breaks.

How Did PCEs Support Students’ Rightful Presence?

How students modeled their ethnographic data was important. Beyond bringing ethnographic data into the classroom, students used data as public epistemic resources that made their lives visible. With data modeled through charts and graphs, these discourses integrated STEM knowledge and community knowledge in visible and tangible ways (Tenet 2). 

Modeling data invited deeper engagement with hybrid forms of STEM expertise. The limbo stick team undertook challenging technical modifications, and considered design tradeoffs as they conducted community interviews about how their project worked. Community insights supported the students in moving from a solar panel to a hand-crank generator to meet the power load and control the lighting, and in deciding to angle the LEDs so they did not poke anyone who was limboing. 

PCEs support teachers in engaging in allied political struggle (Tenet 1). Ms. K. embraced that she was not the sole expert, and how she needed to learn with/from her students.

Further, by grounding the engineering design in students’ meaning-making of community data, Ms. K. opened herself to renegotiating the values, discourses, and practices that undergirded what it meant to rightfully learn STEM (Tenet 3). 

Lastly, beyond the making of the projects themselves, as the design became used regularly in the classroom, it became a tangible symbol of the students’ STEM agency to make injustices and social change visible (Tenet 2). 

Thinking Forward

For youth without critical allies, gaining rightful presence in schooling and STEM is an uphill battle. But it is one we must be willing to engage with youth if we are to oppose historicized inequalities and enact new possibilities for a more just world.

This blog post is based on the following manuscripts.

Calabrese Barton, A., and E. Tan. 2020. Beyond equity as inclusion: A framework of ‘rightful presence’ for guiding justice-oriented studies in teaching and learning. Educational Researcher 49 (6). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/0013189X20927363.

Schenkel, K., S. Bliesener, A. Calabrese Barton, and E. Tan. 2020. Teacher’s toolkit: Community ethnography. Science Scope 43 (7). www.nsta.org/science-scope/science-scope-march-2020/community-ethnography.

Angela Calabrese Barton is a professor in the Educational Studies Department at the University of Michigan. Her research is grounded in the intersections of teaching and learning science with an emphasis on equity and social justice.

Edna Tan is professor of science education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her collaborative research investigates what constitutes equitable and consequential science and engineering learning for historically underrepresented, minoritized youth across learning contexts and over time. 

By Angela Calabrese Barton and Edna Tan. This post was originally published on the National Science Teaching Association website.

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About the Founder & CEO

Dr. Koshi Dhingra has dedicated her career to STEM education and is passionate about having every child live up to their potential. Seeing a lack of girls and other underrepresented youth in STEM programs, she founded talkSTEM in 2015 to address the imbalance. She has a doctorate in science education from Teachers College, Columbia University, has years of experience teaching in graduate and undergraduate programs, and has held leadership roles in universities. She advises and collaborates with a broad range of educational institutions globally. Dr. Dhingra began her career teaching science in middle and high school in New York. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, three children, and two dogs.