This page originally appeared on @THEU
The National Science Foundation has awarded University of Utah researchers $1.25 million for Queering STEM Education Research, a pioneering program to recruit and train postdoctoral researchers to explore marginalization in STEM disciplines from a queer theory perspective.
One way academia has tried to understand inclusion in STEM-related fields is through education research, a scientific field of study that collects and analyzes data related to the learning environment. Recently, education researchers have boosted efforts to examine how teaching methods, classroom dynamics, student interactions and overall culture impedes the academic success and equitable participation of marginalized groups in STEM, especially regarding race and gender.
The perspectives of LGBTQIA+ students have been largely understudied, even as 11% of high school students identify as lesbian, gay and bisexual with 2% identifying as transgender. Notably, many STEM faculty who are queer are not “out” for fear of discrimination, exclusion and denial of career opportunities.
The University of Utah will build on the STEM education research led by Ramón Barthelemy, founder of the Physics Education Research at the University of Utah (PERU) Group, by creating a first-of-its-kind professional development opportunity—a postdoctoral training program that is truly interdisciplinary, fostered by critical studies and will support STEM education researchers and scientists who draw upon what is referred to as “queer theory” and “queer methods.”
Queer theory is an umbrella term to describe fields of research engaging with lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender-queer, gender-nonbinary, transgender and asexual subjects, experiences and desires. To queer research is to push the boundaries of research methods and bring to the center people on the margins. Queer theory emerged from both academic discourse and social movements aimed at supporting LGBTQIA+ people.
“Fields of study have rules and expectations to ensure rigorous scholarship. But we forget that when we do research, there are people involved. Who we are really matters, and the subjects that we study really matter,” said Annie Fukushima, associate professor of ethnic studies, associate dean of undergraduate students at the U and co-principal investigator (PI) of the grant. “As we train the next generation of scholars, we want folks to be critical of how they are doing research and who they’re interacting with, so that they can critically understand how students move through queer identities while navigating the STEM space.”
The grant will fund three postdoctoral fellows to engage in research with mentors in STEM education fields as well as queer, ethnic and gender studies, which are known as critical fields. The collaboration between the College of Science and the School for Cultural & Social Transformation (Transform) aims to produce a cohort of scholars equipped to address the intersectional concerns of STEM students through a queer lens.
“Education research is complex. You can’t just design a project about classroom dynamics by going, ‘Are there People of Color—check. Are there queer students? Check,’” said Barthelemy, who is also assistant professor of physics and astronomy and co-PI of the grant. “It’s about asking the complicated questions. What does it mean to be part of those communities, for the students and the researchers?”
Fukushima and Barthelemy will recruit three fellows to represent a cohort from diverse backgrounds. Over two years, the fellows will conduct two research rotations with faculty at the U before choosing two permanent mentors, one in science education and one in critical studies, to support them in creating and implementing a research project. Their program will include participating in a Queering STEM Seminar Series, mentoring with faculty and peers, having the opportunity to mentor undergraduate students, and attendance at conferences. The program will conclude with a final research symposium at the U.
A natural next step
Unofficially, Fukushima and Barthelemy have been collaborating with each other for years. Barthelemy’s PERU Group focuses on the lives, educational experiences and career paths of marginalized students in physics and STEM, including pioneering work on LGBTQIA+ people, graduate Students of Color, and women in physics. He was named the 2023 LGBTQ+ STEM educator of the year, is a fellow of the American Physical Society, and has written over $5 million in successful research grants.
“When I got to campus, my students needed to learn critical studies. So as part of my research group, students would have to take queer, ethnic and gender studies in addition to their analytics classes. This grant is a natural extension of that,” said Barthelemy.
Fukushima’s research focus is labor, migration and racialized- and gender-based violence, and is a nationally recognized expert on human trafficking. She is an interdisciplinary scholar who holds appointments in Ethnic, Asian and Latin American Studies, and is the 2023 Lead Fellow For the Transformative Intersectional Collective. Since stepping into leadership roles in the Office of Undergraduate Studies, her interests have broadened to addressing inequities at an institutional level.
“This collaboration is important for me, as someone who works in undergraduate research and wants to address inequities in higher education,” Fukushima said. “Some fields are more diverse than others, and some fields need a more creative way to imagine the pipeline because what they’re doing hasn’t fostered diverse scholars.”
Lisa Potter Research communications specialist, University of Utah Communications