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Featuring guest Regina McCurdy

Regina McCurdy | Teaching Teachers to Teach Science

Regina tells her story and then we talk about the importance of bringing empathy into the classroom and the role race and ethnicity plays in the science classroom.


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Regina tells her story and then we talk about the importance of bringing empathy into the classroom and the role race and ethnicity plays in the science classroom.

Description

Regina McCurdy loved science as a child and also took her faith really seriously, which eventually led to a conflict. When she was eventually told by a pastor that she didn’t have to choose between science and faith, her world opened up. Now she spends her days teaching teachers how to teach science. In the episode we hear her story and then talk about some different aspects of science teaching including the importance of bringing empathy into the classroom and the role race and ethnicity plays in the science classroom.

Before You Read

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Transcript

Regina:

If my faith is what it is, I can have these types of challenges and bring them to God. And I can ask him for help and say this is confusing. Because I did struggle. I struggled with, if I don’t think that this was a literal view of creation then does that mean that nothing else in the biblical text is accurate? And so having those types of inward conversations and bringing them to God and then looking at, you know, BioLogos and other resources saying, “Nn, it’s okay.” I’m all about, as a teacher, I want my students to question things around them. So why is it that I felt I couldn’t do the same?

My name is Regina McCurdy, and I am currently an Assistant Professor of middle grades and secondary education, focus in science education, at Georgia Southern University. 

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

In our last two episodes we did a deep-dive into the teaching of evolution hearing from many different people who are passionate about teaching science. Regina McCurdy, our guest today, shares that passion and has found a career in teaching teachers how to teach science. Before that she was a middle and high school science teacher herself. She also has her own story about coming to terms with evolution as a science-loving child who was conditioned by her church to be suspicious of evolution. Regina shared her story with BioLogos in an article on the website a few years back and she tells that story in more detail here. 

Part way into the episode I bring in a new co-host. Faith Stults is Program Manager at BioLogos working with the Integrate curriculum and before that was a science teacher, so she shares some experiences with Regina and we wanted to get them talking about what they have seen and learned. 

You may have heard us talk about Integrate on previous episodes. Integrate is a teaching resource, designed for classroom teachers and home educators. We’ve just released some new units and more are on the way. To learn more just go to biologo.org/integrate. 

Now, let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Dr. Regina McCurdy, welcome to the podcast. We’re glad to have you here. 

Regina:

Thank you. 

Stump:

So you’re a professor of science education now at Georgia Southern, and later in our conversation, we want to talk specifically about teaching science to students. But first, as I usually do in talking to new guests, I’d like to wind the clock back and get to know some of your own story first. So if you would start just by telling us a little bit. Where’d you grow up? What was your family like? What kind of kid were you?

McCurdy:

Great. Yes, I am very honored and pleased to be here and I will share whatever information you would like. I love sharing about my background. So I was raised in West Palm Beach, Florida. I have six brothers. I am the only girl.

Stump:

 Wow, that must have been an experience. 

McCurdy:

It was an experience. I can’t think of life without so many siblings. And my parents, they are still living in the same house where I was raised in. And they are very proud parents obviously of all of us but I’m sure, you know, if you talk to any of my brothers, they know there’s a special place in my parents heart for me. Both of my parents were in education. My mom was a biology and chemistry teacher at high school, middle school and high school, oh man, 40 plus years. My father was an administrator at a predominantly black high school in South Florida as well for more than 30 years. So education is in my blood, even though I tried to run away from it. That’s another part of my story. But yeah, that’s where I was raised. I was sometimes a quiet child, you know, I was definitely my mother shadow being with, you know, all the males in the house. But I very quickly learned how to, you know, enjoy learning. I loved school. I was one of those students that others wouldn’t like because I would be proud to show my parents my report card. And some of my brothers hated that. That’s definitely me. I love school. I love learning. Science was definitely my favorite from the start. I always wanted to be a doctor. So I recall almost all of my science fair projects, and I didn’t need my mother’s help. It was just something that I intuitively, you know, I just loved learning about living things specifically, and you know have been doing surveys and experiments on plants and all the things as far as science I just remember loving and enjoying from very early on.

Stump:

Nice I was gonna ask you about how science became a thing but it sounds like you inherited that honestly from your mom. Do you remember, what do you remember as a kid that you know when you say you were interested in all these living things? Does that mean you’re going out and bringing home worms and frogs in your pockets or looking at plants and birds, or what do you remember as a kid doing that really kind of drew you even further toward the living world?

McCurdy:

It’s funny you ask that because my part of my research is trying to uncover where the students that I teach now, at the undergraduate level, trying to understand where their interests in science came from. And it would be hard for me to sort of pinpoint anything specifically in my background. Like I said, I really wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to help people and to treat people. I had my whole plan, you know, life plan, as far as I was going to do, you know, be a pediatrician. But I was also going to do some medical mission work. And I just remember telling my grandfather, my mother’s dad, that I was going to be a nurse or a doctor when I was, I don’t know, five or six years old. And I’m not exactly sure where that came from, aside from the fact that my mom was already in science. And I know at some part of her story, she was, you know, sort of aiming towards medical school as well. But I remember, one of the earlier memories, which is not extremely early, but sometime in middle school, one of my science fair projects of me testing the different plants and the different testing plants and different types of soil, outside in the backyard, and me just, you know, being proactive with you know, looking at that. I will say I was not the outdoorsy tomboy type. I sort of, you know, look back now, I’m much becoming much more engaged with the world, the natural world and environment, physically. I love studying about it and learning about it. But I never really just branched out outside and, you know, walked through the grass and picked up bugs that I can’t say that was part of my story.

Stump:

Well, tell us something about the religious atmosphere that you grew up in as well.

McCurdy:

Great. So I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church, and it was a predominantly white church. My mother actually was a charter member there in the early 80s, I believe. And she still attends there as well. So I was in the church on Sunday morning for Sunday school, for church, for church training later on Sunday, for Wednesday night, we call it girls in action, I don’t know if that is dating me or if anyone’s aware of that, but sort of a mission oriented group for girls. I was in youth group, in the choir, all the things church, that was me. Right around the corner from my home. So that is—my mom, also, she was the oldest of her siblings, and her father was a Baptist minister. So we got it honest as well. My dad was a, you know, raised Catholic, but, you know, we would have those types of conversations about God and faith and the church. But I was very much raised in the church, I participated in Bible drills and competed with that. Church camps. All of those things that would go with being in that type of church setting, really provided a strong foundation for faith. And my mom is definitely a very strong woman of faith. And I learned a lot from her, from my upbringing. I will say, you know, I remembered, you know, the traditional going walking down the aisle and you know, receiving Christ, and not necessarily at the time knowing exactly what that meant, but knowing this was important, and this was about my faith. I think my faith sort of fleshed out on top of those type of decisions later in college where, you know, you’re sort of launching out and trying to find who you are and making choices that maybe you didn’t think you would make, and really uncovering what it means to have a relationship with God outside of the strong, you know, familial faith that I grew up with. And I think that’s where I really became someone who started to sort of ask those questions that I had but was afraid to ask within the church community of fear of, you know, them thinking I was less than what I was. So I am very much an advocate and understanding that a lot more on this end than I did moving into the college space.

Stump:

For sure. So many of our listeners will recognize that you have told the first two parts of a very familiar story for lots of people out there, that you take your faith seriously, grew up in a conservative environment that took faith and Christianity seriously but you are also attracted to science. That has all the makings of a conflict coming here. Right? You told the story in an article on the BioLogos website a couple of years ago about your own struggles with accepting the science of evolution. I think our audience here would be interested in at least some of the highlights of that, which began, as I recall, with you having to take a course on evolution to finish your undergraduate major, right? 

McCurdy:

Yes, I was. In college, it was my last semester, and the dreaded class evolution that all— 

Stump:

This was a Florida State, right? 

McCurdy:

This is at Florida State, yeah. That all of the biology majors had to take. And it was very much something that I was inwardly fighting against. I was never, I was very, very respectful. My teachers and professors and, you know, would never say something out in the classroom, as far as “you don’t know what you’re talking about”, or that was never, that’s not naturally a part of my personality. But inwardly, oh, my goodness, I was having all these types of conflicts and conversations, and I just knew I was right. And so I did struggle in that class. I think I got a C or C minus. I loved that C. I still love that C. But I do remember having a conversation with my father, and him just saying, “Regina, don’t try to preach, just get out of the class, you have to graduate.” You know, because I was of the mindset that, you know, this is so against my core as a person of faith who’s following Christ and reading the biblical text. I can’t believe this. This is just not not accurate. And so needless to say, I learned probably nothing about evolution from that course. I was mentally just so opposed to it. I count it a blessing that I was able to write my way out of that course.

Stump: 

What do you mean there?

McCurdy:

I love to write. And that’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time. And I love to research. So I actually wrote a paper on the development of, say, superbugs as far as bacteria. And it was that paper, as a final paper, that I believe I got an A on that helped me to get through that course. I was so thankful for that opportunity to do that. But you know, when I think about that, in retrospect, there was a lot of growth, I think I needed to do as a, you know, a young adult at that time and some of my stubbornness and not being open to hear another perspective that I think I’m a lot more open to do now on this side.

Stump:

Well, it wasn’t like that paper completely changed your mind about evolution, though, was it? 

McCurdy:

No, not at all.

Stump:

Keep the story going a little. So you graduate from Florida State with a bachelor’s degree in biology, but still don’t think that evolution is a legitimate scientific theory, right?

McCurdy:

Yeah, absolutely. And I was I, as I mentioned, I was headed towards medical school, it ended up that deep down, I knew that I needed to be in the classroom, I needed to be a teacher. And so I remember teaching, one of my first years teaching, and trying to avoid teaching about evolution in the classroom. I would give the students the words you know, for the definitions, in the end you need to understand the words and the terms because I didn’t want to do a disservice to them, but I didn’t go much further in explaining some of the concepts. And mind you teaching middle school evolution is not very in-depth. But even still, inwardly, I knew that there was something that was happening and as I think about it, now I really do believe that God was helping me to see you need to, if you’re going to be in science, you need to be open. You need to be able to hear other perspectives, and to struggle with that a little bit because your students on the other end, you’re not giving them the full picture. They’re going to be just as close minded as you. And it took me years to get to that point. But I did battle with that. And I think as we moved from you, my family moved from Orlando area, I’m sorry, from West Palm to Orlando, and got job teaching middle school science here. I started to attend a church, Northland church, in Longwood, Florida, in central Florida. And we loved me and my husband loved the community. It was right around the corner from the school that I was teaching, sometimes I would see my students, and some of my colleagues were part of the ministry there. So it was a great, great place to worship and to serve. And one service our pastor at the time, Dr. Joel Hunter, which I know he’s connected with BioLogos, as well,

Stump:

Yeah, he was an advisor of ours for a long time. 

McCurdy:

Yeah. One of his messages, he mentioned—his wife, I believe, taught science at some point in time, and he was a teacher at some point in time, I believe, as well. And he was saying, you know, “there is no conflict between science and faith.” And my ears were just perked. And I was just jotting all these things down that he was talking about. He mentioned Francis Collins, and that someone that he, you know, knew well. And he mentioned BioLogos. And I know my husband was probably like, “oh my gosh, there she goes.” But sitting next to him in the service, and I’m writing down the words and the website, as he’s talking about this, and I’m like, “this is what I needed.” Because, you know, I, by that point, I knew, I strongly believe I’ve been called to teach. It’s not just a profession, for me. It’s not just a job. I really believe that’s part of how God has wired me to reach people is through teaching. And helping students learn better about the world around them. But so at that point in time, listening to Pastor Joel, I knew I needed to make some changes inwardly, so that I could be a better instructor and better teacher outwardly to my students. So I left that Sunday, I don’t know how many different things I read on BioLogos that night. I watched multiple videos. And this was, I don’t know how many years ago this was now, there wasn’t as much that’s on BioLogos website as there is now, so I just scoured all of it. And I felt very free. I felt like the tension I was having just sort of dissipated. I was like, I’m not the only one. There are others who are science minded and faith minded. And I can speak more freely about this. 

And so I’m sure within the next couple of weeks, I was incorporating some of the videos into my lessons when my students, I was extremely excited that it wasn’t just something I was battling with, and that there was freedom and that you know, if my faith is what it is, I can have these types of challenges and bring them to God. And I can ask him for help and say this is confusing. Because I did struggle. I struggled with if I don’t think that this was a literal view of creation then does that mean that nothing else in the biblical text is accurate? And so having those types of inward conversations and bringing them to God and then looking at you know, BioLogos and other resources saying,  “no, it’s okay.” I’m all about as a teacher, I want my students to question things around them. So why is it that I felt I couldn’t do the same? And I think that that’s where I have grown a lot in my faith and in my work, with future teachers specifically, and helping them to understand it’s okay if you don’t know everything. But we need to make sure that we’re doing justice to all the sides of the conversation to be informed citizens and members of the world.

Stump:

Well, that’s really interesting. And I think a lot of our listeners will resonate with that. And many people, just like it was for you, it wasn’t that they needed more scientific information, somehow in order to see how science and faith might be reconciled. They needed that faith side to have their eyes opened and to see examples of other people and see how others have interpreted scripture and been led on that path. So I think you’re in very good company in that regard. Let’s talk a little bit more now about teaching science to others. And for this I’m happy to be joined by another of our BioLogos staff members, Faith Stults. Faith is a program manager for us now working primarily with the Integrate faith and science curriculum that we’ve been developing and might talk a little bit more about but faith welcome. You’re pretty new around here. How long has it been?

Stults:

It’s been five or six months now. 

Stump:

Five or six months and this is your big Language of God debut must be a very exciting moment for you.

Stults:

It is. I did my warm-ups before hand, I’m ready to go.

Stump:

Well, before you came to BioLogos, you were teaching at a private Christian school in California involved with science education there in a couple of different ways, right?

Stults:

Yeah, I think my last decade or so has been a mix of science and faith in a number of different ways. I studied astronomy and religion in college because I couldn’t decide which one I liked more, and decided that teaching science in a Christian context would be a great way to bring those two together. But before jumping into the classroom, I got a master’s in science education, and got a chance to research how science is taught at private Christian High Schools. And not surprisingly, I then wound up teaching physics and astronomy at a private Christian high school myself for several years and got a chance to extend my master’s research a bit by surveying my own school’s faculty on their views on science and faith and had a really cool process with that school around how we address those topics with students. But I’ve been a big fan and very involved with BioLogos for many years. So it’s really exciting to get to be on the team and working on this Integrate science and faith curriculum.

Stump:

Good. And the Integrate curriculum is how you came into contact with Regina, I believe. And I’d like to hear the two of you talk some here about science education, if you would?

Stults:

Sure. Yeah. I mean, Regina listening to your story, I noticed a lot of similarities between our experiences, both as students and as teachers. It can be really uncomfortable and even daunting to introduce your students to potentially controversial subjects like evolution or the age of the universe, and finding that right balance between teaching them the best science content, but also being responsible for navigating them through their personal religious viewpoints, not to mention your own. After you discovered BioLogos, how did you change how you taught evolution in your classroom?

McCurdy:

That’s a great question. I, and still at that point, it was middle school, you know, so it was still very, you know, I would say basic, foundational type of terms, natural selection, adaptation. And so one of the ways that I, like I mentioned, I use those resources, videos were really helpful. But one of the things that I sort of started with, as I started the unit with evolution was a little different than I had before. So I, you know, I would sort of just give this type of phrasing. As far as you know, all of us have different beliefs, we all have different backgrounds and we want to make sure that we’re respecting what others think and what others say. But it’s also good to know the other perspective. So we’re going to address evolution, specifically talking about natural selection and adaptation. And how the science behind this is very supported by the evidence that scientists and researchers have been looking at for years. So I try to give them this umbrella of how first to just be open, to be listening. And to let them know that this is not going to be something that they’ll feel uncomfortable with in this classroom space. I want to make sure that it’s a safe place for them to ask those types of questions, as well. And I also, I try to make mention that, you know, we all believe something differently, and this is not a conversation that should make you feel less about your faith, or about what your parents have told you what you’ve grown up with. But it’s my role as your teacher to let you know the science aspect. So as I instruct future science teachers, even now, I really stress to them that their role is to help students understand the science. And so I try to base this in evidence. And I also try to have activities and opportunities for students to explore the evidence in some way for them to sort of come to some awareness and understanding of it as well.

Stump:

Let me jump back in here and ask both of you to comment a little bit, if you would, on the differences between teaching something like evolution in a private Christian school, versus this public school setting where you were Regina, where many of your students undoubtedly identified with Christianity. But aren’t there some limitations there that—does that make it trickier for you? And then maybe Faith can jump in and talk about what some of her experiences were with that in a private Christian school?

McCurdy:

Yeah, it does make it tricky, and that’s another reason why I’ve gone, I wanted to get my PhD. I want to really support new teachers going into the classroom and helping them navigate these types of conversations in the classroom so that they can stay there for a longer time and do good work. It is tricky in the public sphere for teaching. There are things that you can’t say or you know, whether the school or the school district or the community, and really knowing how much to share of your own background. I know some of the mantra is, you know, if a student asks a teacher, the teacher can answer that question. But the teacher can’t offer their opinion. And I you know, I understand that. But I also know when I was teaching middle schoolers, they’re so open. They were, it was almost like they were just very thirsty to just hear real content that wasn’t sugar coated. They have real questions, and they have real concerns. And I wanted to make sure that I was not shielding myself so much in my job, you know, my position, but meeting those kids where they were. And so I had to prioritize my students in that way, to, is this, you know, did I dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’, as far as you know, the district I was working in or what I felt would happen as far as retribution. I remember I did, I attended private school from fifth to ninth grade, private Christian school. And I strongly doubt I heard anything about evolution. Which is not surprising, obviously. But I think obviously, being in the college in the university level now I have a little bit more freedom, I can share that. But it is something that has K-12 teachers very tentative as far as what they’re able to say, and how much of their story they’re able to share. I’m curious as to Faith, Yeah, what are your thoughts on that?

Stults:

Yeah, there’s such different settings in the private setting, it just depends entirely on the particular school and what their approach is. The school that I taught at, their approach to these types of issues, when it came to origins was that God created the universe, hard stop. That is what we affirm as a multi-denominational school, and that it was up to individual teachers and students and families to determine for themselves exactly how God did that, what the time period was, that sort of thing, we really strove to be a big tent school. Which honestly, I thought was a really great approach, because it gave me the freedom as a teacher to say, here’s the best science that we have available to us. And here’s the range of responses that Christians have taken to this information. Let’s talk about the pros and cons and how they arrive at that. And give the students some opportunity to process and evaluate for themselves, how they make sense of the science in light of their faith. So it’s, I didn’t have to, and I wasn’t supposed to, be advocating for any particular interpretation, but giving the students the foundational information and the critical thinking skills to make that evaluation for themselves. And I thought that was a really healthy and thought provoking setting and approach to the topic. 

Now, Regina, you have since shifted out of the K 12 classroom, you are in the big wide world of science education research. And you’ve been doing some really interesting stuff. You just mentioned working with preparing new teachers in the classroom. And I just have to say, thank you, on behalf of all teachers. Teacher preparation is so important. That first year or more can be so brutal. And now more than ever with the things teachers are facing in the classrooms today COVID and our hyper-polarized society and everything that has always been challenging about teaching. Do you have any thoughts on what new skills or preparation these next generation of teachers need to enter into today’s classroom?

McCurdy:

I think that’s a great question. Yeah, I, you know, while I was teaching the last five or so years of me being in the middle school in the K-12, I was also an instructional coach while I was teaching, so I would be teaching so many class periods, and then observing teachers in all different content areas coming in, and helping to support them. So I’m grateful for that. Because now in this position, I can sort of see both sides. I think one of—a couple of the skills that I think we need to develop in our future teachers is, we have already mentioned the ability to think critically. It’s missing in our K-12. A lot of our content, science as well, is still based in memorization, memorizing terms, and being able to just, you know, spout them back as they were given without any connection to their real world experience and what these terms really look like in everyday life and how they’re implemented and the science that students are engaged with, just by being people on the earth. But it’s sort of characterized within just the walls of the classroom. So preparing teachers to be critical thinkers themselves, and I tell all of my students—my students, now our future teachers, I can’t get away from saying that word students—but is that they have to be learners of their students. I say this, and I mean it so much, I would not be where I am today if I was not a learner of the students that I had. Their experiences, their knowledge, their backgrounds, what they bring into the classroom is already so rich. So I really want to make sure that the teachers that I’m helping now, before they get into the field, understand that the way we can make this better is by being learners as well. You’re not the, we call it the sage on the stage, you don’t know everything. It needs to be more collaborative in the classroom space. So helping them understand what are some of those ways that they can think critically about the content and creatively about the content? How can they present the content in a way that is helpful to that group of students and their background, and what they understand already? And I would say probably one of the third is just being collaborative, being able to receive feedback, and to hear insight and input from others, and integrate that into their teaching in their instruction. Even if that means you know, their students, again, the collaborative piece, but more importantly, their peers and their colleagues. And, you know, the resources that they have to just think differently about what teaching looks like.

BioLogos

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the conversation. 

Interview Part Two

Stults:

There’s a lot of great innovation coming in science education, a lot of new approaches. And one of the topics that you’ve done a little bit of work on is engaging student empathy in STEM. And I kind of chuckled to myself when I saw that because I’ve read a fair bit of science education, research and empathy is not a word that shows up a lot in that body of literature. So I’m curious, can you tell us more about that connection, and particularly how that impacts student science learning?

McCurdy:

Yeah, absolutely. So you know, at the introduction, I mentioned how I loved science fair projects as a student. Most students In K-12 hate the word science fair, science fair projects. It can be very long, very tedious. And I was just noticing even before I started my PhD, I was actually getting my educational specialist degree in K-8 Math and Science Teaching. As I, you know, I was noticing, whenever I would talk about science fair to my students, they would just sort of check out. You know, those who were doing the project, the first few minutes of class, “okay, where are you with your science fair project? Have you done this part? Have you done this part?” Like, “yes, Miss McCurdy, yes.” And then I’m like, okay, let’s get into the content today. And then they’re all, they’re all in. And I’m like, this is really interesting that the science fair for whatever reason, they just sort of check out. But when we’re talking about what we’re doing today, in the classroom, they’re just all ready for it. And so part of my program to get my educational specialist degree was to conduct a study, and to submit it for submission to a journal. And so I said, I wanted to do something, a twist on the science fair, and I want to have my students develop their own problem that they want to solve in whatever way, and I didn’t give them any really limitations at all. And I was able to incorporate it into my class schedule. And I believe it was Mondays that I would allow them to develop a topic. And it was, you know, several weeks in this study, so there was a little bit of structure. But I really just said, what are some problems that you would like to solve in your life or something that you’ve noticed, and I was pulling in things that they care about. I wanted it to be open to see what they came up with. And that’s where this idea of empathy became a part of this process of—you know, these kids come in with the weight of the world, some of the students in very different classes that I had. There had just been a recent shooting in Florida, one of the major ones, and several of them wanted—their problem was how do we protect ourselves in this classroom, if there was a school shooting? There is no way in the world I would have been able to fashion that question for them to research. That came from their own lived experience, from their concerns, from their fears. And they were empathetic towards that.

So as the study developed in the classroom, and I was writing, my professors at the time, and they’re my co authors on this, they were very supportive in helping me to sort of flesh out that empathy piece that was so critical to how they work to solve their problem. And the core of it was they had a sense of something that was meaningful to them, or meaningful to others. Whether it was the water pollution or the litter on the school campus at the time, and it was just, it was fascinating. And there was a lot in that study there, but I am so pleased that this is still something that is helping others understand that the science classroom should extend outside of the four walls. And we need to bring in these experiences and the topics and ideas that students care about into the science world if we want to have a sustainable future, you know, as far as our physical world, but also our social one and how we interact with others who are different and have different perspectives as well.

Stump:

That’s really fascinating. We should ask you one more area that you’ve been researching. I saw that for your PhD dissertation, you did a study of male students of color and various factors related to whether they pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, the STEM fields. Can you give us a little overview of what you found in that research?

McCurdy:

Yes. Wow, it was, I will say this, when I go back and read parts of my dissertation, I’m thinking, Oh, my goodness, I could write a whole life story just on that. But yeah, you know, I had, even being a black, you know, teacher, is not to say that I could still connect, and I perfectly knew how to teach students of color. Because, you know, looking the same doesn’t necessarily mean I have the same experiences and can speak to them at the level that they needed to be. So throughout my teaching in the middle and high school, I noticed particularly that some of my black male students, they were very bright and science and engineering, and you know, the engineering tasks I would incorporate into my science class, but they still sort of felt and would verbalize that they’re not good at it. And it was mind boggling to me. And that was one of the triggers that I knew day one of my PhD what my dissertation was going to be on. And it didn’t waver except for the fact that initially, I wanted to do this study with middle school students, and I ended up, thankfully, because it was right before COVID, I was able to do this study with students at the college level. But I ended up interviewing, I surveyed several hundred students in STEM at a particular institution, regardless of their gender, their race and ethnicity. So that was one part of the study. But then I sort of narrowed down the interviews to just interview male students of color. I only have one black male student who wanted to be interviewed. So therein says a lot, that I want to continue to research, as to what’s happening in the science spaces with black male students in the college level. And then the other gentlemen were Latino or Hispanic. And, you know, I was very much expecting that their culture and their race and ethnicity played this major role in how they viewed themselves in science. And I couldn’t go that far as to saying this, but I also realized that the culture, as far as for those four Hispanic young men, not being from the US, was something that was very overarching. Two of them were immigrants here, and two or three of them were immigrants here and one was born here. So I think that there’s this ethnicity aspect, that, you know, learning a new language and being able to take the right classes, even though they didn’t really understand the language and how that could set them up for success or not.

The other aspect is looking at, you know, the relevancy of the science that they were taught and their upbringing, whether it was in another country or here. And a lot of it was not specifically on their culture or their race. But there’s a deep relational issue between them as a learner and their teacher. And the way that the teacher was able to make the science relevant to them, was really, really important. There was one conversation, as we, you know, talked about evolution. And one of the gentlemen that I interviewed, he was of the Christian faith, and he actually was a black young man as well. And he had, he did mention a part of his conversation with one of his teachers in high school, and talking about evolution. And this young man did not like the fact that the teacher said that, you know, people came from descendants of apes, and, you know, monkeys, and he took that very personally. And I sort of felt some of what he was going through as a person of color.

Stump:

That was probably a white teacher, too, right?

McCurdy:

Yes. And how I remember being in science classes, probably in high school, and just feeling like, you know, some of the images of how black people were portrayed as apes, or as monkeys, and how that felt for him. And that part of the interview, his tone changed very much. And I realized I probably shouldn’t delve a little deeper, because that seemed to be a touchy issue. And I quickly moved on in the interview when I was interviewing him. But I felt what he was feeling. And I understood that tension of looking like the stereotype, but hearing your teachers say all of us are part of this, and him just wanting to, you know, revolt against that from his faith. And I believe too, as a person of color. So that was very meaningful. That part of the research and I would love to delve in with that more with others, other black male students, and you know, black female students as well to just sort of see how they, how this topic of evolution, and those images that come up, how that affects them emotionally and psychologically, and how that sets them up or not for working in science fields in the future.

Stump:

Yeah. As BioLogos has much more intentionally tried to pursue topics related to diversity, equity, inclusion, we’ve heard over and over from people of color that this science and faith stuff, yeah, that’s interesting to some people, but if you want it to be more relevant to us, it needs to tie in more directly to justice and equality somehow, I think the faith side of doing that is pretty obvious, even if it’s not always very well acknowledged by people of faith that we ought to be on the side of justice and equality. Can you talk a little bit more about the science side of this, and this might, might tie back to some of what you and Faith were just talking about of virtues, empathy, and perhaps other virtues that that science helps to develop in people? Is there anything in particular that you can tie in to social justice and its relationship with STEM fields? What can you tell us about what you found in that?

McCurdy:

Oh, wow. You know, equity in science, for some, they would think, well, of course, we’re all, we’re teaching the same information to the students in the same way. And that’s not really equity. You may say, make an argument that that’s equality, that everyone’s getting the same information, but we’re all starting from different points to get there. So, for example, part of my research with my dissertation and what I intentionally integrate into my teaching now is how are students of color or marginalized students, how are they represented in the science texts, in the instruction that’s given? How is it even presented? Science is not unbiased. It has been developed and encultured, and a lot of times, students in the classroom, and nine times that attend if you were to ask, I will say students of color, and possibly some, you know, white students as well, who does the science, where does the science come from? And most often white male, you know, people, from hundreds of years ago and so disconnected from what life looks like now. And part of my goal when I’ve done presentations for other faculty, what I do in my classroom now is to present other cultures and other people groups who are doing science and have been doing science for eons, and how can we connect with what we say is science now with what they were doing to live and to survive? So, you know, we sort of look at these some of these people like George Washington Carver, he’s always mentioned in the textbooks, and as well he should, but there are so many other people of color in science, who, because they were a person of color, their efforts were not acknowledged. And you know, I think about the movie the Hidden Figures. And I remember watching that movie in the theaters and almost being to tears that I did not know about these women. And that was, you know, it wasn’t too long ago when the movie came out. And so, you know, just being very incensed and understanding that I need to do better in my classroom when I’m presenting and teaching this. And we have to—science teachers and science teacher educators—we have to question even the curriculum that we’re given, we have to question decisions that are made by the district as to who we’re having to come and speak or who is being interviewed to teach in our classrooms. Those things we have to question if we want to create a more equitable atmosphere of science learning, so that we can say, even if this person of color, the student of color chooses not to go into a STEM field, he or she still feels prepared, that they would be able to excel in it. And I think, you know, science education, we have to offer it as a way that anyone can access it. And anyone can do it. So we need to sort of, you know, open our lenses a little bit and say, okay, we’re missing a lot of students who have diverse perspectives and views that can enrich the field of STEM, the discoveries that are made, the ways that we can connect with each other globally, in our local environment, and our community. And we need to figure out another way of challenging ourselves as teachers, as researchers, and other stakeholders of saying, “okay, we’re not doing good right here”, which is why we have the result that we have. But also, you know, going back to that empathy piece, part of the others that I’ve been collaborating with as far as STEM and empathy is, we think about the STEM pipeline, and we want to develop—this is a global phenomenon that students are choosing to go into STEM fields less and less. So it’s not just here in the US, this is something that’s happening in a lot of different countries. But do we just want them in the STEM field so that we can be on top as a global, you know, as a world leader? Is that the best way of thinking of it? You know, maybe we should sort of flip this around and say, what are the problems that are out there that these students feel like they can contribute towards? And how can we prepare them to contribute to those problems that they feel are warranted and that can help their well being and the well being of others. So you know, science, there’s so many conversations we can have with this. And a lot of times we will have to reflect and question the story of science that we give to our students in the classroom, because a lot of times it’s not accurate.

Stults:

Yeah, science does not happen in a vacuum. And it’s not this idealized, formulaic process that we often teach our students that it is, this linear step by step thing that just happens in the absence of bias or experience or unique personal perspectives. Thinking about how you said, in your empathy research, giving students the opportunity to find things that they cared about problems they wanted to solve, made them delve into some different topics than you might have otherwise brought up in the classroom. And I think that’s a little micro example of what you’re talking about, on the larger scale of the scientific pipeline, that if we equip and empower students of different racial, ethnic, religious, socio-economic backgrounds to identify the problems that they see, and equip them to take them on and support them in that, through science, science becomes a whole lot bigger, and a whole lot more meaningful, and a whole lot more beautiful, I think.

McCurdy:

I think what I been integrating the last couple years working with undergraduates, too, is, you know, reflecting on my, and what can I do better. So I’ve been incorporating more ideas from indigenous knowledge and indigenous science into my curriculum, and having, exposing students to other ways of knowing that they otherwise wouldn’t find out about, but it’s important. And hearing the importance of land and water, and how that was used and how crops were grown, and how people would know that it was going to be raining and would know where to follow these creatures along their path to know, you know, we’re going to find what we need there. So I’m very much a proponent of helping my students understand, you know, this knowledge did not come just from one group of people, it was co-opted a lot of times and given another label. But, you know, people have been engaged with scientific thinking and critical thinking and observing the world for, you know, 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of years. And we need to give credit to where it’s due. 

And to the point as well, you know, I know that, you know, science teachers listening to this would be like, That’s easy for you to say, you know, you’re in a college classroom, you can sort of map out your own lesson plan, your curriculum. But I have to meet these guidelines, I have students that have to test, and this is the content, and they have to know all of these, you know, ideas and big ideas and benchmarks. And we have to meet this by a certain time. And if I don’t, I won’t have my job. And I think that that’s part of another reason why I am where I am. And trying to help future teachers and in-service teachers think about like those school standards that they have, or the state standards that they have to meet. And if we can talk about, you know, how organisms interact in their environment, why can we not give the students an opportunity to have a little project where they go outside and they explore something and connect that to the standard? So you know, it’s almost sort of putting those standards and those benchmarks on their head and looking at how we live life naturally as human beings in this space and how can these experiences we have be connected to those learning goals. And so that they are able to stay in the classroom but enrich their learners, their students, even so much more with the science that is apparent all around them. So I’m here to say it’s doable. And I feel like you know, I’m able to do so much more in this spot and helping my future teachers think creatively when they’re turning in their lesson plans. “Well, have you considered that?” “No, I didn’t consider this because I’ve only seen it done this way.” So, you know, just wanting to ask them, what would be interesting to you as a learner? And there’s, you know, there’s a sense of fear there. And that’s understandable, but I really try to challenge them to think more as a learner than someone who has to have all the answers. And a lot of times it’s able to align with those expectations that they’re required to do in their school and in their classroom.

Stults:

It’s almost like teaching is kind of a hard job. [laughter]

Stump:

Well, Regina, we thank you so much for talking to us. We’re about out of time and need to wrap things up. But perhaps we could close by asking you one more question. Maybe you could give us some advice. Let’s maybe think of it this way, if you could go back in time to the Regina who was in high school, in college, who took her faith seriously, but was also interested in science, who was called to teaching, who was part of the African American community, knowing what you know now, what would you say to her? Which I guess is kind of my way of getting you to give advice to the rest of us who identify with various aspects of your story.

McCurdy:

So I’m going to sort of change a little bit of the question and say if given myself then, as leaders in the church, what would they say to me? You know, I keep going back to creating a space for people to question, to ask questions that they’re afraid of asking in any other way. And being okay, as spiritual leaders and spiritual guides with not having an answer that‘s textbook from the Bible, but being able to walk alongside of someone like me, then and say, “you know what, this is a great question. I don’t know the answer, but I would love to help you pray through it. I would love to just see what some of some ideas and thoughts you have some of your fears. What do you think will happen if you were to ask this question out loud?” You know, we’re afraid in the Christian community a lot of times of having those questions we don’t know the answer to for fear of representing our faith in a different way. Now, I think God is way bigger than our questions. He’s able to take it. He’s able to handle so much of what we are afraid of verbalizing. So that’s the one way I would think about from that lens. The other lens as far as professors of science, if they you know, are listening, let’s say it’s okay to present the science and also allow your students to struggle with it. My experience in in college, I will say this about, you know, a couple professors that I had, if I were to have voiced my opinion, it would not have been received well. It would it would have been put in a different category, that’s not science, that’s not valid. And people’s upbringing, their values, what they believe about their faith and about the world, it’s important. It shapes how they move about as shapes to choices and decisions that they make. And my concern in the classroom now is I don’t want that to be the case for any of my future teachers I’m educating or any other students I have. I don’t want to sound as though I know the answer and they’re not being scientific, so they’re wrong. I think that happens a lot in the classroom in science, particularly for people of color who do have a strong faith. And that may be something that’s hindering us from seeing diverse voices and diverse thoughts. So I am the better for having gone through that. Those different stages as a learner, as a teacher, and I would just you know if we’re going to really be In this field of science, we have to, as you mentioned, be okay with having questions that don’t have an answer. And exploring how we can collaborate together to get to a richer meaning of what it means to be science minded individuals in our world because all of us are whether we think we are or not. And that’s part of my mission in the classroom, is to help people feel comfortable with the discomfort of that science can sometimes bring, but being okay with asking those tough questions and knowing that others are having those same tough questions, they’re asking them as well. They’re just not at the point of being able to say it out loud.

Stump:

That’s really good. And really wise. Thanks so much for talking to us about it. Thanks for the example that you’ve been to your students and now to the teachers of students. And thanks so much for talking to us. I hope we can do it again sometime.

McCurdy:

Absolutely. Thank you so much. This was a pleasure.

Stults:

Thanks, Regina. It was great having you on.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you  will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Regina McCurdy

Regina McCurdy

Regina McCurdy, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Middle Grades and Secondary Education in Science Education at Georgia Southern University. She and her talented and supportive husband Michael have two bright beautiful children, Ellis and Elyse, and a people-loving yellow Labrador Retriever Sabra. Regina is very passionate about teaching and learning, drawing from her experiences as a science teacher, instructional coach, and teacher educator for almost 20 years. She has a desire to equip and empower teachers of science—across primary, secondary, post-secondary and graduate levels—in implementing effective culturally relevant pedagogy in their classrooms. In doing so, Regina hopes to develop teachers who actively advocate for all students, so that these learners receive the best possible science instruction. Central to her goal in science education is motivating students to not only enjoy science, but to view themselves as scientists, critical thinkers, and global citizens who desire to help solve real-world issues creatively and with empathy. Regina has been following Christ since her childhood and is honored that God called her to the field of education. She does not take this calling for granted; she knows serving and being a light to others in this way is greatly needed in this space. When Regina is not lesson planning, grading, researching or writing for academic publications, she enjoys spending time with her family, listening to a variety of podcasts, playing Candy Crush, and baking, though she hopes to do more inspirational writing on her blog.  

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