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
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.
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),
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.
back to top
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.