We can all be starship captains

Stereotypes are an unfortunate reality in today’s world. It’s in human nature to sort and categorize things, to try and make sense of the world by putting things into boxes. “The red mushrooms are poisonous”, “the dark sky means it’s going to rain”. Categorizing things like this has been a necessary part of our survival and evolution as a species, and as a result, this sort of thinking is ingrained into our minds since birth.

Unfortunately, this thinking can also lead us to make assumptions, and these assumptions can often be damaging in the modern world. Oh look, that disheveled guy in a trench coat is probably a violent, angry person. Better stay away from him! That girl wears a lot of makeup and loves long skirts, there’s no way she’s into heavy metal as much as I am! By correlating details like this with certain personality traits, we find ourselves deciding who people are before we even get a chance to talk to them.

Sure, you can change how you dress or how you present yourself, but the sad truth is that you’re going to get categorized no matter what you do. It’s human nature to size somebody up in an instant and assume that’s who they are. Of course, this leads us to a huge problem.


Imagine if there was something about you that you were born with, something completely out of your control, that made everybody look at you differently. It’s a huge neon sign above your head that says “stupid” or “inferior” or “criminal” or “worthless”, letting everybody know that this is what you are as soon as they look at you.

This is what racial and gender stereotypes can feel like sometimes, and this cultural phenomenon is a huge barrier to getting people interested in the sciences. In this blog, we’ve previously discussed the importance of idea diversity, how everybody’s got their own experiences and stories that shape their perspectives and help them come up with special ideas that nobody’s ever had before. When a disproportionately high number of scientists, engineers, and medical doctors are upper-class white men, then a disproportionately high number of innovations come from similar viewpoints. Even if you were to look at the lack of diversity in science from a completely economic and developmental standpoint (ignoring human empathy entirely), then you could still say that the lack of diversity in the sciences directly limits the number of viewpoints that scientists have, therefore limiting our ability to advance as a species.

Of course, once we stop ignoring the idea of human empathy, the cultural problem becomes much, much worse. Imaging a 5 year old Hispanic girl who looks up at the stars every night and dreams of floating alongside stars and planets as a starship captain. Her mind is a child’s, pure and unbiased, and this dream feels like it could someday be a reality. Then fast forward ten years to see that same girl in high school falling asleep in science class. She lost her passion for the stars long ago. Nobody ever directly told her that Hispanic girls can’t be starship captains, but she figured out the idea through a whole lot of context. The way people talked down to her when she told them about her ideas, the stereotypes she saw everyday in modern culture, the pressure she feels from her peers to become what they think she will. Somewhere in all of that, that starship captain was lost.

But why can’t Hispanic girls be starship captains? Space is a big place to explore, surely having a specific cultural viewpoint will be helpful somewhere! What if there’s an alien race whose entire civilization is one enormous, densely populated city? Surely a captain with some experience in an environment like that would have an advantage when he or she tried to solve the Xandarthians’ economic crisis. What if there’s a planet about to be swallowed up by a black hole? A person who grew up in a high-pressure environment might be able to keep a cooler head.

The point is that no matter where you’ve come from, there’s a place in science for your special perspective, and that’s why it’s such a huge waste of potential when kids lose interest in science because it’s “not their place”.

This brings us to the glaring question, of course, which is “How do we work to fight these cultural trends and stigmas so that everybody gets excited about science?”. Thankfully, there are a number of steps that you can take as an educator.

  • Create an environment that encourages EVERYBODY
    As we’ve discussed before, science flourishes best when people are allowed to think, flow, bounce ideas off of one another, and take charge of their learning. Give everybody the freedom to learn in their own way, encourage everyone’s viewpoints, and give everyone a chance to lead and be in charge, especially female and minority students who aren’t very confident in themselves.
  • Acknowledge your biases
    Having biases and making assumptions doesn’t make you a bad person. Your brain is going to think what it’s going to think and that’s okay, but you have to be mindful of it. If you see yourself making assumptions about a student, kick yourself and learn more about them before you decide. If you see yourself spending more time with male students than female students, kick yourself and make sure you equalize the time you spend. Let your actions tell everyone that they’re valuable and capable!
  • Use good role models and social constructivism.
    If you want your students to believe that all of us can be scientists, then you need to back that up with some evidence. Give examples of scientists from all backgrounds and groups, like Mae Jemison, Michio Kaku, or Grace Hopper. Likewise, make sure that your classroom is inclusive with regards to each students’ background. Do you have one student who moved to the city from the middle of nowhere? Try using a tractor to explain torque. Every student has a different upbringing, and you need to tap into that to help them learn.
  • Be a good teacher
    As much as this last tip might seem like a cop-out of sorts, it’s important that you practice good educational practices to get underrepresented kids interested in science. It doesn’t matter if they’re black, white, purple, turquoise, or whatever else, if your science classroom isn’t interesting, they’re not going to care about it. Make sure that you bring your A-game and remain flexible, doing everything you can to help the students make the most of your classroom.

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