Centering Cultural and Traditional Knowledge in the Chemistry Classroom

 “What would happen if we could help scientists learn and understand Inupiaq knowledge systems and use that to engage Inupiaq students in science practices but from their frame of reference?”

During the chemistry department’s weekly seminar on Thursday, Nov. 11, NSF 

Graduate Research Fellow Danielle Maxwell, accompanied by colleague Jeff Spencer, presented on her team’s project to implement a snow chemistry unit informed by local and traditional knowledge at a tribal college in Utqiagvik, Alaska. 

At the northernmost point of Alaska, the Inupiat people of Utqiagvik “experience the effects of climate change firsthand,” Maxwell said. The melting permafrost and declining sea ice extent threaten to shift 10,000 year old practices of subsistence hunting and sea ice navigation that are central in the Inupiaq traditional knowledge. Through these practices, the Inupiat “possess an intimate knowledge of the tundra and sea ice” that is integral to their “cultural and spiritual identities.” As the effects of climate change will increasingly impact this community, Maxwell and her team collaborated with the Inupiat to create a culturally relevant science course that would intersect traditional, local, and western scientific ways of knowing at Iḷisaġvik College, the only tribal college in Alaska.

In order to design this course, Maxwell and her team were guided by an educational approach called Culturally Relevant Education (CRE). Maxwell defines this pedagogy as “a lens to develop curricular materials that strengthen students’ cultural identities while teaching content and scientific practices embedded within a chemistry classroom.” She also shared four ways science educators can bring CRE to their classrooms. To be a culturally relevant educator, instructors first must see the cultural assets students bring to the classroom as valuable. Second, they encourage students to consider how course material relates to their own community. Third, they build a classroom where students learn about their own and others’ cultures. Fourth, they discuss the systemic inequities that affect non-majority students “thus promoting social justice for all members of society,” Maxwell said.

Put into practice in her project, Maxwell illustrated how CRE informed the snow chemistry unit through a case study that followed one student through three different activities designed to integrate traditional, local, and western scientific resources. 

Building up to their final research project on caribou migration patterns, the first activity the student engaged in was information gathering. This phase of the project is essential to CRE as it positions local and traditional knowledge as a critical framework for understanding specific chemical phenomena. 

“We want students to learn about the traditional and local knowledge of their community and so we have students listen to stories of an Inupiaq Elder,” Maxwell said. After listening to an Elder’s story about finding drinkable water on the tundra by removing the salty top layers of the snow, the student was able to reflect and connect the story to their own personal experiences with the subsistence hunting and migration of caribou. 

Following their conversation with the Elder to understand an aspect of Inupiaq traditional knowledge, the student engaged with local resources from the Bureau of Land Management “to explore how caribou migrate across Alaska and the importance of that.” This allowed the student to incorporate and reflect on the value of local knowledge and the information gathering process as a whole to create a personal and culturally relevant framework before engaging in western science practices. 

After gathering data on the migration of caribou, the student engaged in the snow chemistry Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). Through POGIL, the student analyzed accessible chemistry graphs that showed how sea salt ions are distributed in the snowpack and answered guided questions. This allowed the student to use their framework of traditional and local knowledge to hypothesize the implications of chemistry concepts on caribou migration. 

Lastly, the student worked with a science professor who specializes in snow research to develop their research question. After going through drafts and peer edits, the student combined local, traditional, and western scientific resources to research “differences in chloride concentrations based on proximity to caribou herds and snow depth,” Maxwell said.

The snow chemistry unit is now at its fourth year of implementation at the college and has been used in a general chemistry course, an introduction to climate change course, a chemistry and society course, and a geoscience course. “It is pretty exciting to see how applicable it is across science courses,” Maxwell said. 

As Maxwell and her team finish their last iteration of data collection on the experiences of students, they can now think about how implementing a similar unit would work in a context where non-majority students may not make up the majority. “A lot of what we do is engage in community based design in which we work with community members that are specific to the context…so I anticipate that a place like Anchorage, or a place like Seattle or Chicago would have different value sets and therefore the curriculum would look very different,” Maxwell’s colleague, Jeff Spencer, said.

After the seminar, the Quest had the opportunity to speak with Reed’s Visiting Professor of Chemistry Nicole James to hear some of the ways she thinks about CRE in the Reed chemistry classroom. “When we are sitting in our classrooms and talking about chemistry in the abstract of us and our relationship to it, we are ‘learning about,’ so there is an inherent cultural alignment embedded in my classroom ― that to white, western culture. That creates an inequity because then some students are receiving an education aligned with their culture, and others are not,” James said.

To mitigate this inequity, James shared some strategies she tries to incorporate into her lectures. “Even an open-ended question such as: ‘where have you seen something like this before in your life?’ can, I think, make an important impact in making students feel like their cultures and backgrounds are a valuable resource for learning,” James said.
To students who are interested in pursuing culturally relevant science communication and education, James shared several opportunities for students to get involved at Reed. The Science Outreach Program, Student Teaching Consultant Program, course tutoring, grading, or being a lab teaching assistant are all great ways students can practice accessible science teaching. “You learn so much by getting out there and doing these things,” James said.

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