Nurturing Black Chemists

Young Black scientists thrive in the supportive environment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. But predominantly white schools don’t have the same success, in part because of barriers erected by introductory chemistry courses. No matter their path, though, 6 Black chemists talk about their hopes for the future

In this three-part package, we look at these issues from various angles.

In the first part, we look at a bright spot in the training of Black chemists: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). While less than 10% of Black college students go to HBCUs, these institutions graduate almost 30% of Black chemistry bachelor’s degree recipients, as well as 32% of the Black students who go on to get PhDs. They do that through a combination of intense student supports, diverse faculty, and a push toward science careers, according to chemistry faculty and former students.

HBCUs face intense challenges, though, including inadequate resources and overworked faculty. The Black Lives Matter movement might be a chance for scientists and the larger community to better collaborate with faculty and students at these vital institutions.

In the second part, we look at how foundation-level chemistry courses at predominately white institutions contribute to the diversity challenges that chemistry faces. The design and teaching of these undergraduate courses—such as general chemistry—have turned them into gatekeepers that block students who have the potential to succeed. Some professors are trying to change the narrative from one of gatekeepers to one of gateways, but there’s still much work to be done.

Being Black in chemistry is a lonely experience for many, and it doesn’t get better after earning a PhD. In the final part of this package, six Black chemists share their experiences and their hopes for a more equitable future in the sciences.

They make a very good point here:

When I think of a weed-out course, there are arbitrary barriers that are put in place to keep students out. One of the most common and egregious, in my opinion, is grading students on a bell curve,” says Thomas Freeman, an assistant teaching professor of chemistry and director of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “If you learn the things that I ask you to learn and you show that you’ve learned them, then you can get an A. And if everyone does that, then everyone gets an A.”


What is your thoughts on this @Jordan? @cwhenderson, though this is about chemistry, the insights here certainly apply to biology too.

I think back to my time as a graduate student in mathematics. And no, there were not any black graduate students there at that time.

As a grad student, I spent time in many ways. Part of my time was attending classes. Part of my time was in the library.

Part of my time was in the coffee room, taking with other grad students. And some of this talk was about mathematics.

If black students were to feel excluded from that coffee room time, I think it would be a lot harder for them. Maybe it isn’t enough for the universities to change. Maybe the whole culture needs to change.


Very important topic. I wrote and deleted several replies because it’s a hard subject to talk about and so much is context-specific. I think the article was OK, but I think it placed too much “blame” on faculty. Changing grading schemes or using the most innovative curriculum isn’t going to help if students don’t actually want to learn, take the time to learn, or even care if they pass the course.

I’ve taught General Chemistry every semester I’ve been a faculty member (for the last 9 years). I am an early adopter of innovative pedagogy and education technology, and have a comparatively low DFW rate, but honestly I think I really ought to be failing more students. I throughly agree that we should not be intentionally weeding out students, but maybe it’s OK to let them self-select out of STEM if they really aren’t that interested or motivated in doing the work.

I just really don’t see curricular changes as really being the answer. I think we’d likely be more successful if we work on the motivation and perseverance aspect of getting a STEM degree. If you are underprepared academically, doing a Chemistry or other STEM degree is going to be a significant challenge. Do they know what it’s going to take? Are they putting in place the skills and practices that will help them be successful? Do they have the support systems that can help them stay motivated? I think those are much better questions than harping on grading on a curve (I’ve never known a professor who actually does that).

Note: I am not saying students are lazy. Many of these students are incredibly dedicated to their sport, working to support their families, etc.

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“While less than 10% of Black college students go to HBCUs, these institutions graduate almost 30% of Black chemistry bachelor’s degree recipients, as well as 32% of the Black students who go on to get PhDs.”

It seems to me that it would be worthwhile for other universities to use HBCUs as a model for how to develop not only Black Chemistry students, but students of any major and any ethnic background. With Texas Southern University right here in Houston and Prairie View A&M an easy drive, I think it would be worthwhile for us to make some visits.

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