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Outreach Events Engage Queer and Transgender Youth in STEM

Run by queer and transgender scientists, a new program aims to help high school students of similar identities see a future for themselves in science.

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A first-of-its-kind program has been bringing college-level experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to queer and transgender high school students. The program, Queer Science, is organized and run by queer and transgender scientists.

“We wanted to give queer and transgender youth a chance to see a future for themselves in the fields of science, to see people who are older than them who are involved in these fields, and to see some representation that is like them,” said Evan Tyler, a graduate student and outreach coordinator at the Minnesota Institute of Astrophysics in Minneapolis. Tyler helps organize and lead Queer Science events at his institution.

“There really isn’t any other STEM program out there that specifically addresses this identity,” Tyler said. “I would love to see other universities take notice and start to develop this in their own communities.”

Tyler will present a poster about this program today at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2018 in Washington, D. C.

Representation Matters

Queer Science Day participants create designer agar plates with bacterial DNA.
During a Queer Science event in August 2018, high school students participated in a microbiology lab experiment using agar plates. They gathered samples of bacteria from around a classroom, extracted the bacterial DNA, and cultured the samples in petri dishes. Some participants even created designs out of the cultures, such as the symbol seen here. Credit: Julie Johnston

Queer Science started at the University of Minnesota (UMN) in Minneapolis a little under 3 years ago.

“When we first designed it,” Tyler said, “the Queer Science program was a group of transgender and queer scientists, mostly graduate students, that decided that we wanted to invite queer and transgender high school students to come and get a chance to do some hands-on college-level experiments with other queer and transgender scientists as mentors and as role models for them.”

Recent studies have found that STEM students and faculty who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and/or asexual (LGBTQIA) face discrimination, harassment, and assault at rates much higher than their cisgender and heterosexual peers. LGBTQIA students are also less likely to stay in STEM past the undergraduate level, and faculty are less likely to be open about their identity because of these factors.

As a result, scientists with these marginalized identities are underrepresented and not very visible. This lack of visibility can make it difficult for up-and-coming queer and transgender students to envision a future for themselves in STEM, Tyler explained.

Tyler, who researches low-frequency plasma waves in Earth’s radiation belts, experienced those feelings himself during graduate school. “That was one of the reasons that I really wanted to be involved in this program,” he said, “because I’m certain that my experience isn’t unique. If I can ease some of that intimidation for students who are even younger than I was at the time, I would consider that mission accomplished for me.”

“A lot of the time, these students just really want to see a representation of someone like them in front of them,” Tyler said. “They want to know that we are out there. They want to know how accepting the field is to people like them and how you find support in a field where you may be the only representation of your particular identity.”

By and for Queer and Transgender Scientists

Queer Science hosts daylong STEM outreach events each semester. Participants perform hands-on experiments while learning the science behind them.

Queer Science participants extract and purify plant DNA.
High school students took part in a plant genetics lab experiment during a Queer Science event in April 2018. During the experiment, the students learned how to extract and purify plant DNA and analyze it to determine the plant’s evolutionary history. Credit: Julie Johnston

At past Queer Science Days, “we have had astrophysics modules, civil engineering, chemistry, biomedicine, genetics, coding,” Tyler explained. “We’re always adding new things and mixing things up.”

“We staff our events completely with other queer or transgender scientists,” Tyler said, “and we’ve unfortunately not yet had a good geosciences module. I would really like to see that field represented, as well as medical science.”

At the fifth Queer Science Day, which took place on 1 December, participants built autonomous robots, learned the building blocks of computer code, synthesized fluorescent dyes, purified DNA, and blew up dissolved metals in balloons.

The robotics and computer programming labs, which were new this year, were very successful, according to Julie Johnston, a graduate student in environmental engineering at UMN and founder and head of Queer Science. “I am so excited to expand into these newer STEM fields since they are so important and distinct from traditional benchtop lab work,” she said. “We need more queers in the tech world.”

Queer Science also hosts college preparation days where organizers help students select and fill out applications, write personal statements, and study for standardized tests.

“We want to support our students to not just envision themselves in STEM but ensure that they make it to their favorite college,” Johnston said.

Steadily Growing

Queer Science Day has seen a more than fivefold increase in participation since it started a little under 3 years ago, which is a big response from such a small subset of the population, Tyler said. Some of the participants have gone on to volunteer as leaders at future events. “They really love this program and want to invest in it,” he said.

The change in how the local and university communities view queer and transgender students has been slow, Johnston said, but there has still been notable progress since Queer Science began. “Faculty who are supportive are getting better at knowing what authentic support actually looks like, as opposed to claiming allyship without backing it up.” she said.

Tyler, Johnston, and the other organizers hope to add more Queer Science events throughout the year and spread the word of this program to queer and transgender scientists at other institutions. They want others to see their program’s success and begin similar organizations elsewhere.

“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Johnston said, “but hopefully we can reach a point where there is less division between our queer identities and inner scientist.”

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer

Citation: Cartier, K. M. S. (2018), Outreach events engage queer and transgender youth in STEM, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO111553. Published on 10 December 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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