On October 16th, 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation at the University of Missouri by Dr. Ashley Woodson, Assistant Professor in Social Studies Education. Dr. Woodson’s presentation, “Same Script, Different Cast?: The Civic Case Against STEM Superheroes” was part of the Sandra K. Abell Conversations about College Science Teaching lecture series. Dr. Woodson brought to the audience’s attention a parallel between K-16 social studies and STEM education involving the use of representation to discuss racial diversity, equity, and inclusion. Utilizing the iconic song, Same Script Different Cast recorded by Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox, Dr. Woodson compared the messaging in the song to what she is noticing in K-16 STEM education—Whitney Houston, the previous partner of said individual warning Deborah Cox, the current partner of said individual, of his devious and duplicitous nature. Her observation was that as K-16 STEM education seeks to diversify its approaches to be more inclusive of racialized students, these fields are falling prey to the same trap that has possessed K-12 social studies education since the multicultural movement of the 1970s. That trap being the failed promises and missed opportunities of using representation as the tool for building inclusion or promoting equity. In this presentation, Dr. Woodson embodied the voice and messaging of Whitney Houston warning us STEM educators (Deborah Cox) of the impending threats of using representation as a sole tool or strategy.
Since that presentation, this notion of representation as a tool for promoting and supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion work has been at the forefront of my mind. As a Black male scholar whose research focuses on identity expression as it informs the retention and matriculation of Black women in STEM, I could not help but think about the ways in which representation is or becomes the de facto construct investigated within STEM education research or presented as the solution for promoting student engagement and continued participation. It is all too common to hear scholars, practitioners, and policymakers discuss ways in which we can increase the representation of diverse populations in STEM, cite statistics on the changes in representation of specific identity groups by STEM disciplines as evidence for diversity and inclusion success, or use role-models in STEM fields as a way to entice and attract racialized students by showing them that “they too can make it.”