Two hexagons, one containing a portrait of Dr. Catherine Quinlan, and the other containing the RDEISE logo (a circle formed by hands of different skin tones holding each other by the wrist). Dr. Quinlan is a Black woman with shoulder-length curly hair. She’s wearing a blue blouse and a long necklace with many blue pendants resembling the wings of insects. She is standing outside amongst lush greenery smiling cheerfully at the camera, and an interplay of sunlight and shadows are creating a dappled pattern on her face and body.

RDEISE Guest Post: Dr. Catherine Quinlan on Understanding How We Got Here

The Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Science Education (RDEISE) project aims to educate on the complex history of race and science, and the very real social consequences this history still has today. Our learning cluster, “How Can We Begin to Understand Race,” drew the attention of Dr. Catherine Quinlan, associate professor of science education at Howard University. 

As a science education researcher and professor, Dr. Quinlan was excited by the RDEISE resources, saying that they provide STEM educators and learners with opportunities for rich discussions, different ways of seeing the world, and developing empathy. We asked Dr. Quinlan to share more of her thoughts. 

In this guest post, Dr. Quinlan discusses how understanding the past can help us to understand the present in order to effect positive change. She also highlights the value that the RDEISE project brings to education about history, race and science, and shares a little about her upcoming book. Read Dr. Quinlan’s guest post below.

Text reads: “[RDEISE resources] bring together evidence from history, linguistic theory, and science in a simplified way. [...] At the same time they allow students to draw inferences and their own conclusions.” —Dr. Catherine Quinlan. An illustration shows a Black woman scientist wearing a white lab coat, standing behind a workbench with various pieces of scientific equipment on it, including a microscope, some test tubes, and beakers.

Understanding How We Got Here

I’m always struck by exhibits in historical homes and mansions which display dark-skinned nobility. My mind wanders into a myriad of questions. Was it because the color of one’s skin did not define nobility? Did the color of one’s skin not matter as much then? Did they not know how to make white paint back then, or did they just like these colors?

My research has been driven by the desire to understand how we got here, and what led us to think the way we do. I believe that only an understanding of the past could take us to a place of true and meaningful acceptance of people we perceive as different from us. My thirst for answers led me to explore books like Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People,” which ushered me into academia sooner than I had planned. She draws historical parallels between what was happening both socially and scientifically in societies. Looking at the literature on Blumenbach’s skills, which I touched on in a recent article, helped me to understand the influence of science on society and the influence of society on science. The faster we understand these connections the more likely we are to make better predictions about where we’re going as a culture and as a society.

Black Representations in Science

In my upcoming book Black Representation in the Science Curriculum: Implications for Identity, Culture, Belonging, and Curriculum Development, I discuss that one of the reasons I switched focus from cultural representations to specifically Black representations in science was because of the visceral reactions I got from just using the word “Black.” This book provides a play on the words “black representation” that goes beyond simply including representative scientists. It sheds light on influences on the science curricula but provides specific solutions, exemplars, and science standards and their applications for meaningful inclusion of Black narratives and lived experiences. Most of all, I provide insights into how to think about and reflect on meanings and ideas.  

I began this work with an attempt to grasp at the seemingly ungraspable, and to connect the cognitive with the cultural, the cultural with the social, and the social with the emotional. After years of research, mainly led by a hunch, and not knowing whether I would succeed in linking the cognitive to the social and cultural, it was only until I began to write this book that I finally figured out how I was going to connect the two. Here, my dissertation research, which I defended in 2012, began by looking at schema theory and cognitive progressions in science learning, and becomes morphed with an exploration of the influence of social schemas that permeate our society, and the impact on individual and cognitive schemas.

The Role of RDEISE 

What I appreciate about the RDEISE resources is that they do a good job of highlighting trends within society and science. They bring together evidence from history, linguistic theory, and science in a simplified way. For example, the influence of the development of taxonomy for both animals and humans. At the same time they allow students to draw inferences and their own conclusions. We owe it to ourselves to learn the truth about what influences our thinking. In the end you could accept or reject what is written, much like we’ve already either accepted or rejected what we, our parents, and our ancestors have read, listened to, viewed, and internalized.

A screenshot of an illustration from the interactive infographic “How have our understandings of race changed over time?”. It shows a display shelf with several artifacts and items grouped according to centuries. The shelf includes artifacts from the 11th to 13th centuries, 15th to 16th centuries, 17th to 18th centuries, 19th century, 20th century, and the 21st century. The items and artifacts include some framed butterfly specimens, several books, a goblet, a golden bust statuette of Abraham Lincoln, and an ornamental representation of Rudolph Zallinger’s “The March of Progress,” with wrought iron figures showing different stages of the human evolutionary process from ape to human. There are also several scrolls, a globe, some test tubes and a DNA helix in a jar.
The RDEISE interactive infographic “How have our understandings of race changed over time?” opens with a simulated display case that learners can explore at their own pace.

Learning resources such as “How have our understandings of race changed over time?” provide chronological glimpses into the history of science and our thinking by chunking it into centuries and making connections with the work of respected scientists such as Gregor Mendel. When I taught biology, we discussed Mendel’s experiments with pea plants or his role as a monk while doing monohybrid and dihybrid crosses, but did not make connections with progressive influences on our thinking about race. What we fail to realize is that distancing ourselves from these realities will only make it take longer to grow emotionally if we are a society that values truth, free speech, equality, and freedom. The dissonance we experience comes from our inability to reconcile our past with our current realities, as I reflect on in my upcoming book.

Think about the process and breakthroughs we experience when we attempt to heal mentally, physically, or emotionally. If we don’t value truth, liberty, and free speech then these become more difficult to embrace and the dissonance leads to catastrophe or vice versa. Then the truth becomes relative. No one will escape these realities, as hard as we try. Attempts to perceive things as how they aren’t will eventually lead to chaos as we have already begun to see. After the chaos is gone and we settle into some semblance of peace, then we begin the process all over again, because nothing was truly solved and because we did not want to get to the heart of the matter. Let’s not continue to be stuck in negative cycles, together.

Looking to the Future

So, why is this important? As members of society, parents, and teachers, we all want peace. We’re not going to accomplish this if we remain divided. Science will move ahead of us and we don’t, didn’t, haven’t, or wouldn’t have seen it coming, because we didn’t build self-awareness, by reconciling the cognitive with the social and the emotional.

“We owe it to ourselves to learn the truth about what influences our thinking.” —Dr. Catherine Quinlan

Those of you who want to become good doctors in the future will need to understand these contexts to see how instrumentation has influenced even the calibration of the devices you use. You won’t even be aware that you’re not being fair or that you’re doing the wrong thing, without context. Being effective in other careers will depend on these understandings, because you want to live in a society with people who are equally healthy and happy. While our textbooks and curriculum are still playing catch-up, here’s an opportunity to explore what matters to you and what is influencing your daily life choices, future, and careers—whether you like it or not, and whether you choose to face it. The impacts of race will not go away because you decide not to look at it.

Years of research and teaching has shown me that, in the name of “objectivity,” humans have tried in textbooks to divorce science from the human experience. The thinking seemed to be—if we could isolate the human experience to talk about ideas as if they existed in a vacuum, then perhaps we could show objectivity. We talk about the ideas derived from a person and leave out the experiences, motivation, or individual interests of the person who generated the idea. Then we spread these ideas by creating mechanisms to channel the ideas of a few, which become populated in textbooks.

Alongside an illustration of a diverse group of astronauts, text reads: “World peace will not be a reality without looking at what’s important to us in society. And race is important to us in society—at least for the next couple of hundred years that we choose not to look at it—because whatever we don’t deal with, our children will.” —Dr. Catherine Quinlan.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a great deal of merit to science and scientific thinking. I value both science and emotional experience. As a matter of fact, more recently I’ve begun to see an important connection between scientific and research thinking, and the ability to think critically, coherently, and in depth. I was able to see this first-hand by observing the extent to which a lack of research orientation led to flawed thinking and flawed decision-making, driven by emotional and mental predispositions. Our flaw is that as humans we’ve often treated these as separate entities, i.e. having a healthy state of reasoning and critical thinking, and our mental and emotional health. The unhealthier things are, the more we need to talk about socioemotional learning—whatever that means to you.

What we take into our minds, what we read, our education and views affect how we think, feel, and behave towards others. Losing touch with the reality of how we got here and how we’ve come to think the way we do results in cognitive dissonance. We’ve seen a great deal of this cognitive dissonance lately in the media and in society, and its impact on us emotionally and socially, as people’s behaviors are magnified, and as we’re forced to address what’s beneath the surface.

The RDEISE resources could be used to frame our understandings by going into depth with the additional resources and evidence that these are linked to. World peace will not be a reality without looking at what’s important to us in society. And race is important to us in society—at least for the next couple of hundred years that we choose not to look at it—because whatever we don’t deal with, our children will.

A photograph of Dr. Catherine Quinlan and her family, standing under the leafy branches of a tree. Dr. Quinlan (a Black woman with shoulder-length curly hair wearing a blue blouse and a long necklace) is in the forefront of the photograph, smiling cheerfully at the camera. Her husband (a white man) and her son are standing behind her, their features obscured by the foliage.
 Dr. Catherine Quinlan and her family. Dr. Quinlan says: “This is my family—husband and son in the background. As a mixed family we have conversations that either forecast, are forecasted by, or influenced by what's going on in society. However, because we're raising a mixed child, we can't afford to leave things unsaid so we make great efforts and strides to have those sometimes uncomfortable conversations related to identity, race, and belonging.”

Read more from Dr. Quinlan:

Written by
LabXchange RDEISE team

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