Maryland Today | Where Race, Religion and Science Meet

Amid the increasing realization that boosting diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields is a key factor both for equity and for doing more insightful work, a University of Maryland-led project is examining potential influences on Black students at the intersection of race, religion and science.

The project, funded by a three-year, $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is the first comprehensive study to examine how this complex dynamic influences Black undergraduates’ and graduate students’ pathways in STEM.

Up until now, studies looking at how college students view the tension between religion and science were done without specifically considering Black students’ perspectives, said Julie J. Park, associate professor at UMD. But with approximately 82% of Black people in the U.S. reporting a religious affiliation—more than any other racial/ethnic group—increasing African American representation in science-related fields requires greater understanding of the values and perceptions of the population that universities, other research institutions and firms hope to attract.

“It’s important to recognize that the way religion affects people’s lives in a community is not a ‘one size fits all’ phenomena,” she said. “Our research has critical implications for supporting Black students in STEM and we hope that it helps the science community recognize the complex ways that religion affects people’s lives and engagement with science.”

Park is conducting the research in conjunction with colleagues at Howard University, Arizona State University and Middle Tennessee State University.

“There is a common worry that if a student pursues a science degree they will encounter challenges during their education that will compromise their religious faith; particularly in fields like biology, in which topics like evolution and bioethics are taught often and the majority of instructors are not religiously affiliated,” said Elizabeth Barnes, assistant professor of biology education at Middle Tennessee State.

“Spirituality and religion are salient aspects of many Black students’ lives,” added Keon M. McGuire, associate professor of higher and postsecondary education at Arizona State. “We must consider the Black Christian perspective and the diversity of spiritual and religious beliefs among Black students if we want to increase their participation in STEM.”

The research team plans to interview Black undergraduates majoring in STEM at several traditionally white institutions and one historically Black college or university. They’ll also interview Black students who are not majoring in STEM to determine if their religious perspectives or experiences discouraged them from pursuing or completing a STEM-related degree, as well as Black graduate students in STEM to identify how Black individuals negotiate perspectives on religion and science as they progress through advanced training.

The research team plans to use the findings to develop and implement new ways to engage Black students in STEM, such as increasing partnerships with Black churches and mosques, as well as creating training and professional development resources for faculty and K-12 educators.

“The participation of Black students in STEM remains woefully low,” said Robert Palmer, professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard. “Our findings may provide salient implications to help higher education institutions and pre-K-12 schools foster better conditions to champion the success of Black STEM students.”

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