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Winter 01
Student Experience
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Effective Multicultural Curriculum Transformation in "Advanced" Mathematics and "Hard" Sciences
By Christine Clark*, Executive Director, Office of Human Relations Program, University of Maryland, College Park


THERE EXISTS IN THE ACADEMY AND, TO A LESSER EXTENT, IN THE LARGER SOCIETY, THE ERRONEOUS PERCEPTION THAT "ADVANCED" MATHEMATICS AND "HARD" SCIENCES DO NOT LEND THEMSELVESTO MULTICULTURAL CURRICULUM TRANSFORMATION (CONCIATORE, 1990). THE REALITY IS THAT FACULTY WHO TEACH IN THESE FIELDS ARE PIONEERING CURRICULUM TRANSFORMATION AT A MORE RAPID PACE THAN MANY OF THEIR COUNTERPARTS IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES (FRANKENSTEIN & POWELL, 1998; FULLILOVE & TREISMAN 1990). IRONICALLY, THE IMPETUS FOR THIS MAY LIE IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR. ADVANCED MATHEMATICS- AND HARD SCIENCES-RELATED BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY HAVE SENT A CLEAR MESSAGE TO THE ACADEMY: THEY NEED GRADUATES WHO CAN WORK WELL IN MULTICULTURAL CONTEXTS BROADLY CONCEPTUALIZED (FULLILOVE & TREISMAN 1990).

To do this means graduating students who are efficient collaborative researchers and who have the skills to collaborate cross-culturally (who speak languages other than English, who can interact with people from other cultures and in other cultures, and so forth). It also requires that graduates can bridge theory and practice, can aptly apply complex abstract concepts to the everyday, and can use their expertise to solve real world problems (Freire, 1990).

While many college and university faculty scoff at the notion of applied learning (seeing it as somehow anti-academic), graduates who are products of it are rewarded (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, & Allen, 1998). In fact, the more multiculturally-related courses and extracurricular experiences advanced mathematics and hard science graduates work into their degree programs and co-curricular lives, the more money they earn, and the faster they are promoted. This is because they are better communicators than their eurocentically-educated counterparts (Nieto, 2000).

The multicultural transformation of advanced mathematics and hard sciences curriculum, while not yet commonplace, is by no means novel. In 1988, advanced placement mathematics professors at the University of California at Berkeley discovered the importance of creating a "learning interest culture" for students in their department (Asera, 1990; Fullilove & Treisman, 1990). This culture was established through the development and implementation of workshops in which an individual student's evaluation was based on the collective performance of their workshop group members.

For example, a professor assigns a workshop cohort a problem to solve. Once the cohort has had time to solve the problem, the professor chooses, at random, one member of the cohort to explain the cohort's problem-solving process. The prowess with which the randomly-selected student explains the process determines the individual grades for each member of the cohort. In this way, everyone in a cohort is deeply invested in making absolutely sure that each member of the cohort grasps the learning at hand. With the workshop initiative, students associate with other students with the similar learning interests as themselves regardless of social identity group memberships (e.g., race, gender, language, etc.). This has the overall effect of enhancing the academic performance of all the students across the learning interest, encouraging the development of cross-cultural relationships and peer-teaching acumen, ultimately broadening the repertoire for learning of all involved. Not surprisingly, this initiative has had the effect of reducing racial tensions at the university and other places where it has been employed (Fullilove & Treisman, 1990).

A less erroneous general perception regarding the multicultural curriculum transformation of advanced mathematics and hard sciences is that these disciplines can only be transformed in the manner described above, that is, vis-à-vis pedagogy, evaluation, relationships, and environment, but not content (Yuan, forthcoming). Here again, the reality is that faculty in these fields are pioneering the transformation in this area by leaps and bounds as well (Van Sertima, 1992; Yuan, forthcoming).

A particularly exemplary example of this can be found in the work of Dr. Robert Yuan, professor of Cellular Biology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Maryland. In his forthcoming book, The Diversity Notebooks (working title), Yuan shows how cellular biology curriculum content can be multiculturally-transformed in highly sophisticated ways. For example, in one course, Yuan assigns a student cohort a health issue, prevalent in a particular part of the world, to research. Based on their semester-long research undertaking, the cohort must make recommendations for how to best respond to the issue from the lens of the discipline. The issues assigned are intentionally complex, requiring students to wrestle with the many competing interests that scientists working as professionals in the field confront.

For example, one cohort is assigned to explore the "breast-feeding versus formula use" debate in Northern Africa. At first glance this might seem like an easy debate to resolve. But upon further exploration, students learn that one in three people in Africa are HIV positive. Then students learn that breast-feeding can be done safely even if one is HIV positive at certain intervals during a child's early development. Next, students focus on developing a curriculum that will help new mothers who are HIV positive determine when it is safe to breast-feed. As their research progresses, the complexity of the debate comes to bear more and more.

Clearly, advanced mathematics and hard sciences are open to comprehensive multicultural curriculum transformation as much as any other discipline. Hopefully dispelling the mistaken perceptions that they are not will encourage more wide-scale transformation across disciplines with respect to content and pedagogy, evaluation, relationships, and environment.

References

Asera, R. (1990). "The Mathematics Workshop: A Description." Professional Development Program, 1(3), 1-16.

Conciatore, J. (1990). "From Flunking to Mastering Calculus." Black Issues in Higher Education, February 1, 5-6.

Frankenstein, M. & Powell, A. B. (Eds.), (1997). Ethnomathematics: Challenging eurocentrism in mathematics education. New York: State University of New York Press.

Freire, P. (1990). Education for critical consciousness. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Fullilove, R. E. & Treisman, P. U. (1990). "Mathematics Achievement Among African American Undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley: An Evaluation of the Mathematics Workshop Program." Journal of Negro Education, 59(3), 463-78.

Hurtado, S., Milem, J.F., Clayton-Pederson, A., & Allen, W. R. (1998). "Enhancing Campus Climates for Racial/Ethnic Diversity: Educational Policy and Practice." The Review of Higher Education, 21(3), 279-302.

Nieto, S. (2000). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (Third Edition). New York: Longman.

Van Sertima, I. (Ed.). (1992). African presence in early America. New Brunswisk, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Yuan, R. (forthcoming). The diversity notebooks (working title). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.


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Communication tips
Few members of the general public would think that diversity issues might be relevant in fields such as math and science. If your campus has an initiative that incorporates issues of diversity into math or science fields, consider pitching a story about it to a local reporter or the education editor at your newspaper. First contact the public information officer at your school. She or he may have a relationship with local reporters and may be able to make the first contact for you. When talking to reporters about curricular innovations, it helps to prepare yourself with some clear statements of what students are learning in your classes and perhaps some quotations from students about the benefits they see in taking this approach to teaching math or science.