Including Diverse Role Models in STEM Curricula

three students working in a STEM lab to complete an experiment. Two students in the front are holding test tubes and one student in the back is recording data.

Including Diverse Role Models in STEM Curricula

Contributed by Bryanne McDonough

In most areas of the STEM workforce, racial minorities, people with disabilities, and women are still underrepresented [1,2]. As college educators, we have a critical role to play in retaining and encouraging underrepresented students in STEM. One way to accomplish this is by creating a sense of belonging through adding diverse voices to our curricula and classroom. It is not always immediately obvious where to add diversity in a STEM course, as we most often teach about facts and data rather than people. However, instructors can make a difference by highlighting the contributions of individuals to the facts and data, and help ameliorate identity threats along the way.

Students in the minority of their peers may feel a heightened risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their identity group(s). This is known as stereotype threat [3]. These feelings can make a student less likely to raise their hand to offer an answer, or hold back from peer discussions. Consciously or unconsciously, stereotype threat can limit participation in class and possibly affect what fields a student decides to go into.

One way to ameliorate stereotype threat is by providing role models [4]. When individuals are mentioned in a STEM classroom, it is usually because they were involved in the discovery or explanation of the concept that is being taught. It is important to bring up not just those famous (and largely white male) names that the students may be familiar with, but to also incorporate examples of more diverse scientists. It is also important to remember, as we dive into the history of the subjects we teach, that the contributions of non-white, non-male scientists are often downplayed. A rather infamous example of this is the case of Rosalind Franklin, whose contributions to the discovery that DNA was shaped as a double-helix were often ignored in favor of crediting James Watson and Francis Crick with the discovery.

History is rife with examples to choose from, and I encourage you to look into the history of the topics you teach in order to find them. While doing this, it is also important to recognize that some students may find connections with people who are diverse in non-visible ways. Consider one of my favorite scientists, Annie Jump Cannon, who was instrumental in developing our modern way of classifying stars, and also happened to be deaf.  Or you could mention computing pioneer and code-breaker Alan Turing, who was persecuted for being gay.

These are not extraneous details; research has shown that being presented with examples of scientists they can relate to through shared identities improves student outcomes [4]. Many identities are not immediately obvious, so explicitly mentioning these facts about scientists can help students. It may be more difficult to find examples of individuals with invisible identities in history. Sexual orientation, some disabilities, religion, mental health struggles and neurodiversity are all examples of identities that are not immediately visible that many people are more open about today.

Here are some suggestions for ways to find examples of diverse scientists to share with your students:

  • Utilize diversity databases. This article includes an extensive list of such databases for STEM experts with various identities. You may want to use this in conjunction with Twitter or other social media platforms to learn more about the scientists.
  • Ask colleagues to fill in as a guest lecturer to talk about a topic particularly close to their work. However, recognize that underrepresented faculty often bear a disproportionate burden serving on committees and informally advising students, and that they may be unable to help. If reasonable, offer to cover one of their classes in the future.
  • Twitter can be a great source for finding living, working professionals who are active in the field you are teaching. Scientists on twitter often tweet about their work using language targeted to the general public. Consider sharing tweets about relevant research on topics being covered in class. Many people have information about their identity in their twitter bio, so include this with the tweet so that students can connect with the individual.
  • There are many articles online that call attention to diverse scientists in history. Try googling “examples of ____ scientists”, replacing the blank with “diverse,” “Black,” “disabled,” “LGBTQ”, etc. to find these lists.
  • Search YouTube for explanations of topics covered in your course. There are many channels dedicated to explaining topics or running experiments that are hosted by diverse and interesting people. Once you find a video and have watched it to insure accuracy, watch it with your class or require it be watched as pre-lecture preparation.

There is much work to be done before STEM fields are truly representative. Providing students with diverse role models helps them see themselves in those roles, and is one step we can take to contribute to this effort while making our classrooms more inclusive.


[1] Fry, R., Kennedy, B., & Funk, C. (2021, April 1). STEM Jobs See Uneven Progress in Increasing Gender, Racial and Ethnic Diversity. Pew Research Center Science & Society.

[2] National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2019). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019 | NSF – National Science Foundation.

[3] Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52(6), 613–629.

[4] Steele, C.M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811.