Using Storytelling To Bring Minorities To The STEM Field

Dec 1, 2016

Credit ywca

Nalini Nadkarni is a professor of Biology at the University of Utah and project coordinator of one of the National Science Foundation’s programs. One of her project ideas include the use of storytelling and theater to work with juvenile and adult inmates as a way of teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: 

“Basically [it's called] devised drama - that is, bringing together people in this cohort of recently released inmates from prison and jail. To have them create a drama. It’s not like giving them a Shakespeare play and saying, 'You be Hamlet and you be King Lear,' But rather to say, ‘What are the issues that you are dealing with as you re-enter society? Can we put together a play or a drama and creating the characters?' Maybe it’s trying on a lab coat and thinking, 'Oh my gosh! I’m playing the role of a scientist right now. Maybe that means I could be a scientist.'

“It has always seemed to me that artists and humanists for that matter, could be fantastic participants in understanding the world and in understanding how we might do a better job with science in particular.

“So the National Science Foundation awarded this grant. It’s a brand new program for the National Science Foundation. They are very interested in what they call ‘broadening participation of science.’ They understand that science, and especially the science that they fund - which is basic research - is pretty much dominated by researchers who are white or male and who don’t really represent the spectrum of our country. And they feel that by increasing diversity and broadening participation in the scientific enterprise. From college students all the way up to senior researchers would improve the research that goes on.

“We’ve established a small team here, to try to understand how people who see themselves completely out of the world of science - what we call STEM disenfranchised - people who couldn’t even imagine that they could get a degree in science, or enter the STEM workforce.

"We want to understand how we could attract them and help them feel welcome in the the field of science. We will be working with post-released incarcerated individual - adults and juveniles - people who have been in prison or been in jail or been in the juvenile justice service. And also refugees.

“By having people who might have different ways of thinking, different ways of approaching problems, different ways of understanding and knowing. That diversifying of science, the belief is that it will actually improve the quality of science, it will help us move forward, in terms of what science is all about. Which is understanding and communicating about our world.

“We have a graduate student in the linguistic department who will be leading some of these or all of these participants into telling their own story. And giving them the right prompts and to make them feel safe and comfortable about talking about their own lives, their own stories, their own narratives. What challenges did they encounter that kept them away from thinking about themselves as scientists? What might be some of the shifts that they can imagine would shift them towards that?”

Nalene Nadkarni is a Biology professor at the University of Utah and is managing a National Science Foundation project to teach underserved populations and those in the prison system skills that they need to consider career as scientists. The two-year project focuses on diverse populations along the Wasatch Front.