Case studies are useful tools for discussing topics of diversity in scientific fields. The purpose of a case study discussion is not to solve the problems of racism, sexism, homophobia or other issues of discrimination. In discussing a case study, participants are encouraged to speak openly to create an open forum where all opinions are equally valuable. It is not in anyway necessary for the group to find the “right answer”. The point of these exercises is to envision how our different backgrounds may play a role into how we engage with different scenarios.
Facilitating the Discussion
A good facilitator is interested in engaging with ideas of diversity. The principal job of the facilitator is to foster group discussion around issues and problems in each scenario, discuss possible responses and explore the impact of these responses. It is essential that the facilitator speaks without lecturing, and engages participants with open-ended questions that go beyond simple “yes or no” responses. Some facilitators will ask a question and then step back and observe how the conversation unfolds, only interjecting to ask questions to continue the conversation.
An effective method to generate dialogue in larger groups is to divide participants into smaller groups to discuss initial reactions, and then re-group to present these ideas to the entire room. Groups of three to four people are large enough to get a variety of perspectives, but small enough that every participant has the opportunity to speak. In situations where workshop participants may know each other (such as in a classroom or school), it might be useful to randomize groups so as to ensure that every cohort has a variety of perspectives.
As you work through each case study, encourage workshop participants to answer the following questions.
As you review the cases below, consider viewing the situation from the following perspectives:
As she taught her discussion section of Engineering Dynamics, Gina Gilbertson wrote out an expression for momentum on the blackboard. Outside the window were the metal struts of the engineering building. Inside were twenty-five college students in various stages of alertness. Half of them were paying attention, and the rest seemed to be otherwise occupied.
In the third row sat a group of five students from China. They often talked with one another, but did not socialize with the rest of the class. Next semester, Gina thought, she would start the class off with an ice- breaker to get the students to step outside of their cliques.
Gina had asked each student to fill out a card with his or her name on it and set the cards out at each class period. This made it easier for her to call on people.
After she was done writing out her equations, Gina turned to the class, looking for someone to call on. Her eyes fell on a young Chinese man in a blue athletic sweatshirt. His card read, “Jay.” She had not called on him yet this semester.
Gina took a deep breath. “Jay,” she said, gesturing towards him, “what is an everyday life situation where momentum is important? We’ve talked about the equations – let’s think about how to apply them.”
Jay said something that she could not understand. The other four Chinese students- three men and one woman- laughed. The rest of the class remained silent.
There was an awkward pause. Gina was not sure how to handle the situation. “Could you repeat that?” she said. “I didn’t hear you.”
Susan, another Chinese student, spoke up. “He is just making a joke,” she said, attempting to spare Gina further embarrassment.
Gina shrugged and turned to a white student who was looking out the window. “Mike, what situations can you think of in which momentum would play a role?”
Mike grinned at Gina. “What about those little silver colliding balls executives put on their desks, where you pull out one ball and the other bounces back?”
“That’s a great example,” said Gina, relieved to have found a cooperative student whom she could understand. She turned back to the class. “What about some other examples from everyday life?”
As the discussion continued, Jay leaned back in his chair and went to sleep. Gina noticed this and thought about calling on him again. She decided not to do so. She tried to think back to her teaching assistants’ orientation the previous summer. What was she supposed to do?
Some Issues Raised by this Case
We do not know the nature of Jay’s comment. The comment could have been innocent, sexist, related to her teaching style, or a joke completely unrelated to the topic. What we do know is that Gina is uncomfortable, and perhaps her students are taking advantage of her discomfort. Gina is still learning basic teaching skills, including how to dialogue with her students. She has not attempted to bring her Chinese students into social contact with other students in the course. This scenario is not unusual; students from the same country often do sit together. On the positive side, the students provide one another with social support; on the negative side, they may become segregated from other students – and even from their TA. Gina is somewhat uncomfortable teaching students from a different cultural background than her own, and is not sure how to deal with the language barrier. There may also be other cultural differences at work.
Possible Discussion Questions
As he stood under the fluorescent lighting of the chemical engineering laboratory where he taught a sophomore course, Sam Gold did not know what to say. A dark expression passed across his face. He knew that his university was known as a “party” school. The students could be rowdy on Thursday nights... but this was too much!
Sam liked to use humor to bridge the divide between himself and his students. While most of Sam’s students were from rural families in the Midwest, Sam had grown up in New York City. His political beliefs were considerably more liberal than those of the professors he worked with, as well as those of his students. Because of his considerate behavior and sense of humor, Sam got along well with his professors and the other graduate students.
“All right, everyone, let’s get started,” Sam had said loudly, as his students settled noisily into their seats. “Today, we’re going to talk about catalysts.”
With some encouragement, the class had quieted down. As Sam began describing the role of a catalyst in a reaction, he heard one student say, “We could blow the Arabs away with that shit, huh?”
Most of the class had laughed at the joke. “Yeah, we’d turn Iraq into a dust bowl,” said another young man who had a brother in the Army.
“Show those ragheads what we’re there for,” a third had chimed in.
Sam felt frustrated. However, he knew that the professor he worked for would probably not have been upset by these comments. He generally adopted a “boys will be boys” attitude towards students’ shenanigans.
“Am I being too much of an idealist?” Sam wondered. He was the authority in this room, but his political views were unpopular at the university. He turned back to the blackboard. “Let’s stay on topic, all right?” he said, as he resumed the lecture.
The students who had spoken could tell that Sam was irritated, and looked at each other in surprise.
Some Issues Raised By the Case
Sam’s students have raised controversial educational issues through their classroom behavior. How does a teacher who is in the minority in some way maintain his or her authority with students whose beliefs may represent the view of a vocal minority or of the majority? What if these beliefs are expressed using language that is derogatory towards other cultures? Sam feels himself to be in a tenuous position because he is a TA rather than a professor and does not agree with the professor’s methods. Because of this situation, Sam hesitates to express his point of view.
This case raises the question of the appropriateness and relevance of political discussion in STEM classrooms, where the focus is usually on technical topics. It also brings up the issue of controversial language in the classroom. Students bring their backgrounds with them to class, as do professors. How does one maintain a respectful atmosphere for all students when controversial issues arise? How can Sam let his students know that their behavior is unprofessional?
Possible Discussion Questions
Marie Louise Moreau wondered whether she was the only student in her chemistry group who had read the assignment before coming to class. As her partners debated how they would do a titration, Marie sat on a stool and flipped a tiny braid over her shoulder impatiently. She had expected more when she had taken a plane from Haiti to study at a prestigious college in the United States. This modern chemistry lab with its new equipment, white walls and ceiling, and modern lighting system was fancy enough, but the students expected everything to be spoon-fed to them. It was ridiculous.
Joe Tickham, the unspoken leader of her lab group, was concerned. He was not sure how they would be able to carry out the titration successfully. “I just don’t know how we’re going to do this,” he said. Joe didn’t like to admit that he didn’t have the answer – but, this time, he was stumped.
Marie looked around the room and saw that they were lagging behind the other groups, who were already mixing their solutions. She spoke up. “Well, when I was doing the reading,” she said, “there was a note in the sidebar that said that when you’re doing a titration, you should add titrant slowly near the endpoint. That way, when the solution changes color, it is easier to tell how much titrant was added.”
Joe looked at her with doubt. Could she be right? He didn’t want to rely on Marie’s word alone. She had many ideas, but they weren’t always good ones. “Adam!” he called to their TA.
Adam finished talking with another group and walked across the white-tiled floor towards Joe. “Do you have a question?”
“Well,” said Joe, “We read in the book that we should add titrant slowly near the endpoint, so that when the solution changes color, we can accurately determine how much titrant was added. Is that true?”
“Good memory, Joe,” said Adam, clapping Joe on the shoulder. “That’s right. You’re an asset to your group.” He turned towards the other members of the group. “It’s always important to pay attention when you’re reading. Now, you need to get started with the titration in order to finish before the end of class. Let me know if you have any other questions.”
The two other students in the group, Anna Lee and Brandon Peck, looked at each other uncomfortably as the TA left. Joe had just stolen credit for Marie’s answer. It wasn’t the first time he had done this.
Marie was furious. This was just another example of the old boys’ network she thought. She stood up and began to gather their titration equipment together. “So,” she said, turning towards the rest of the group, “let’s get started. We’ll do the titration slowly, like I said.” She looked pointedly at Joe.
“Yeah, let’s get started,” Joe said brusquely, ignoring her gaze. He didn’t know what she was glaring at him for. If he didn’t take charge, nothing would get done. Anna was too passive, Brandon wasn’t interested in school work, and Marie just didn’t know enough about chemistry to make good decisions on her own.
Some Issues Raised by the Case
Group work can be challenging. In this case, Joe assumes that Marie is not competent, perhaps because of her race and/or gender, while Marie considers Joe to be a member of the “old boys’ club.” Marie and Joe have a stronger work ethic than their teammates do. Marie’s academic preparation and understanding of the material are superior to that of the rest of the group, but her skills are not acknowledged by the TA or by Joe. The TA also makes assumptions about Joe’s competence relative to that of the rest of the group.
Possible Discussion Questions