Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC) Voices: Interview with Dr. Bryan Dewsbury

Bryan Dewsbury

April 18th, 2022

Bryan Dewsbury is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Florida International University and principal investigator of the Science Education and Society research program, which focuses on the social context of teaching and learning in a variety of education contexts.

What are some of the key experiences that shaped your career path in science and education?

My career path has certainly been non-linear, at least from the standpoint of how one might typically develop a passion, construct an academic profile to match it, and pursue it to its logical end. I fell in love with science through the privilege of growing up in Trinidad and Tobago in constant commune with nature. That led me to pursue a degree in biology, which narrowed to marine conservation in my later undergraduate years. A key experience in my evolving journey toward my calling was listening to the words of my parents, who had not gone to college, that my life choices, including my career, should align with my life’s values. It is not that doing marine work, especially oriented toward conservation, did not align with my values, but it certainly became clear to me that teaching in the classroom spoke to those values much more forcefully.

Like many graduate students in STEM, I was required to be a teaching assistant for at least two semesters, but I was strongly discouraged from spending more than minimal time on it. The ‘those who can’t, teach’ mentality extended to a paradigm where pedagogy itself was viewed as an unscholarly activity. Although I was untrained and naive, my first foray into teaching a laboratory class was a transformative experience. Unstructured conversations with students gave me a window into their realities and the contextual motivations for their career pursuits, which made it clear how far the classroom’s value structures deviated from theirs. While I still loved marine conservation work, teaching and the science of equity-minded education became a calling to which I had to respond.

Your work is focused on how students (especially those in underrepresented groups) develop perceptions of the world and others, and how these perceptions might in turn affect their engagement with science content, career choices, and ultimately their academic performance. What drove your interest in these areas?

It was very clear to me, partly from the conversations I was having with my students, and partly from national quantitative data sets, that the perceptions of students from marginalized backgrounds of their place in STEM was driving them away from the subject matter toward spaces that spoke more to their values. In other words, it wasn’t a question of their ability to handle a technical discipline; it was the subtle cues which signaled that the STEM community writ large was built for more dominant cultures. Conversations with my students in that first class also revealed the social drivers for career choice, choices which sometimes transformed the undergraduate journey into a purely utilitarian endeavor. What was more tragic was how little most of their professors knew about these drivers. Listening to the students opened my mind to new pedagogical possibilities, particularly as they pertain to developing the type of classroom that provides students with more power and agency over those evolving perceptions.

You’ve studied and written about the construct of identity. What role do you think identity work plays in learning?

Individual students usually have motivation from different sources that drives them to actualize their own excellence. Internalized visions of themselves as scientists, or in other career preferences, can play a big role in that. It is the inherent understanding that the efforts they’re making now, if done correctly, can inevitably lead them to that vision. To some extent, this vision can hyperfocus on the end, thus distracting from the joy of the journey. But it can be a powerful motivator, particularly when elements of the learning journey become technically difficult.

What other factors have you found are important to understand, consider, and address in the design of learning environments and activities?

The list of factors that promote equity-minded learning environments is extensive, and the importance of each factor depends on the instructional context. In introductory STEM classes, for example, it is important to mind the contingencies associated with transitioning to a college classroom, including fixed mindsets, sense of belonging issues, and stereotype threats. These barriers are not predestined to occur, but instructors should be aware that they are possible. Therefore, much of the learning time during the initial weeks of introductory STEM classes should carefully focus on language, assessment structures, and feedback patterns to obfuscate the consequences of negative mindsets.

Equity is an important topic in informal and formal STEM education. What does equity mean to you, and what do you think are the challenges and opportunities for centering equity in learning and STEM research and practice?

Equity, in the context of STEM education, is the notion that social and demographic factors external to the learning environment do not become potent predictors of academic and social outcomes. The educator in this scenario is required to be more than a subject matter expert; they must understand that if they remain oblivious of those social factors, the setting can become a perpetuator, furthering inequities between groups. Several specific strategies are available to respond to these realities, but contexts matter. The learning journey required about a) the history of social inequities in the United States, b) the relationship of that history with the education system, and c) the various suffrage movements that have risen up over the centuries to oppose inequity, is crucial to understanding why the specific strategies can be useful. A key challenge is that traditional pathways for preparing educators in STEM usually spend little to no time cultivating pedagogy as an actual skill, let alone exposing future educators to the scholarship I just mentioned. As key stakeholders in the learning environment and the institution or organization, all instructors should be expected to possess this knowledge, vs. the purview of an interested few.

Since 2009, our field has been gathering and synthesizing evidence that informal learning environments can be particularly good at engaging youth from non-dominant communities in science learning and identification. Have you seen any examples of this in your own life and work?

In my own experience, it was informal exposure to science that led to my love of the discipline. There is a lot to unpack here, because even the categories ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ sometimes unwittingly assign value to one medium over another. When this happens, all the inequities associated with the accessibility and structures of formal environments become forms of exclusion. Through this lens, informal environments continue to play powerful roles that enable the marginalized not only to access science, but to cultivate agency in ways that more appropriately align with their communities’ values.

Can you recommend resources or research that you have found useful to the community of informal STEM educators and researchers as we work to design, conduct, and study more inclusive and equitable, anti-racist practice?

My view is that before the design phase, STEM educators and researchers need to sit a little bit more deeply with scholarship that tries to unpack and explain why we are at the point we are. I’m not suggesting that everything is bad, but that a key element of fixing a broken system is to understand the system’s drivers. Put a bit differently, we have to agree on some semblance of shared facts and evidence if as a community we are going to solve the problem together. Jill Lepore’s book These Truths is a wonderful place to start. It is a retelling of U.S. history that elevates marginalized voices in ways that few other writings do. bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress reminds us of the soul and spirit of inclusive classrooms. These two books can be great starting points, but there are many others.