By Jan Mokros and Jen Tuttle Parsons
Historically, science centers and youth outreach programs have been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion efforts. A prime example is the Association of Science and Technology Centers’ (ASTC) nationwide YouthALIVE! program, which was rolled out in the 1990s to reach youth of color and youth from underserved communities. Youth programs at science centers and museums have also focused intensively on reaching out to young women (such as ASTC’s IF/THEN Initiative) and to people with disabilities. Similarly, the Afterschool Alliance, which spearheads STEM afterschool programming nationwide, has done a great deal to promote equity for all youth. But there is a specific group—by some estimates as many as 1 in 6 teens—that has not been the focus of inclusion until recently: the LGBTQ+ community. Fortunately, youth-serving organizations are taking notice and ramping up their inclusion efforts.
It is sometimes assumed that success in STEM is grounded in competence and has little to do with social identities (Cech 2013). However, until recently, we knew little about how LGBTQ+ STEM professionals experienced the atmospheres of their universities and workplaces. A groundbreaking study by Cech and Waidzunas (2021) elucidated these experiences through a survey of approximately 25,000 members of 21 STEM professional societies, including over 1,000 individuals who identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community. They found that members of this community described disproportional disadvantages compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers along five dimensions of inequality: They experienced more devaluation of their work, harassment in the workplace, social exclusion and marginalization, health and wellness difficulties, and fewer opportunities to develop career skills (pp. 3–5). A particularly sobering finding was that LGBTQ+ identity corresponded with a higher intent to leave one’s current job or even STEM fields entirely (p. 4). The authors recommend that professional STEM societies, as well as workplaces themselves, focus attention on targeted inclusion initiatives for this group.
What are the implications for informal STEM learning environments at the pre-college level? How can we be more proactive to ensure that LGBTQ+ youth feel welcomed into STEM pursuits as they are making decisions about college and careers? These questions were addressed as part of a panel discussion at a 2022 meeting of rural leaders of Teen Science Cafés. One of the panel members was Jen Tuttle Parsons, who directs the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery. She has led Teen Science Cafés over many years for rural youth in her community. Jen discussed specific strategies for welcoming and including LGBTQ+ youth—a discussion that was informed not only by her own youth outreach work, but also by her recently completed dissertation on ways in which informal STEM learning environments welcome and represent queer people of all ages.
This article is the result of an interview that was conducted following the panel discussion conducted by Jan Mokros, who served as Co-Principal Investigator for the Rural Teen Science Café project. Teen Science Café out-of-school programs are a free, fun way for teens to explore the big advances in science and technology affecting their lives. Teens and STEM experts engage in lively conversations and activities to explore a topic deeply. The interview is condensed and edits are made for clarity.
In my work within informal STEM education, I have always been aware of inequities that are inherent in informal STEM spaces. I was interested in learning how the field as a whole is working to broaden participation with respect to LGBTQ+ people. This is the focus of my PhD dissertation. I came to this work from my perspective as a queer person in Appalachia who also has LGBTQ+ family members. I think that is what prompted a lot of my work. I also wondered whether there were coordinated efforts or best practices for actively including this community.
I focused on questions such as “Is my child represented in science centers?” and “would they feel comfortable visiting and learning there?” As I dug into the existing research, I noticed there has not been much research focused on queer voices. This reflects the fact that people in places of privilege often put the burden of participation and engagement on those who are historically underrepresented. Avoiding this deficit model is important to me. So, I listen to queer voices and ask what their experiences are in informal STEM learning spaces.
I did a case study in a single science center and applied a queer feminist lens. I wanted to get the voices of those who had already thought about exhibits on queer scientists. I found that the queer museum community is extraordinarily welcoming and helped me think more broadly about inclusion in STEM learning environments.
I learned that there are key actions that institutions can take to start making their spaces more welcoming and inclusive. I also learned that there is not just one simple quick fix for any systemic issue. Sometimes people think STEM can be neutral because it is concerned with seeking the truth, with seeing facts. But that particular mindset leaves out the fact that personal identities influence everyone’s work, including the work of scientists. Figuring out the context is important. Asking questions about who is seen as a scientist or an expert starts to break down the idea that STEM itself can be neutral.
Yes, many people I talked to said that they look for small signifiers in the spaces where they are, in order to feel safe and welcome. They could be things like Pride rainbows, safe space indicators, or pronoun pins that show that people at the museum have received training on LGBTQ+ inclusion. But also, are there openly queer employees or visitors in the space? It is a kind of cycle there. We all want to feel represented in the spaces. Queer people want to see themselves represented in staffing, exhibits, in programming, and in learning opportunities. Having visibly queer employees, leaders, and academics—those are ways that inclusion can be demonstrated.
Many of the museum employees whom I spoke to felt comfortable being out, but I know that is not a universal experience and it is important to respect people’s preferences. Not every LGBTQ+ person is the same or grows up in the same communities.
I discovered that a challenge for science centers is collecting demographics on queer people: If centers do not collect the demographic data on visitors, they do not know who is represented or not. At the same time, people do not always want to be screened for queerness, even on anonymous surveys. They may fear being outed, so it is a tricky line to follow.
There are several other things that came up. One was restroom use and having gender-neutral restrooms. If a museum or other space does not have these, it sends a message that queer people are not welcome. Exhibit signage is also an important signifier, as is having gender-neutral language on promotional pieces. And when it comes to programming, it is important to use gender-neutral language and say “people” or “friends” or “y’all” instead of “you guys.” If a field trip group comes in, do not split up students into groups of boys and girls because not every student identifies as a boy or a girl.
And here is one more simple thing: Having a kind of humility in your approach is important. We are all going to mess up on things like pronouns. One of my study participants said that if this happens, it is great if people can just apologize quickly, move on, and try again next time. We might mess up, but we want to keep trying to make those changes.
I have worked with teens for quite a while—I used to be a public school teacher. And I do try to use the things I learned in my research within my own practices. I am very aware that teens understand authenticity and they can tell when somebody is inauthentic. They know if you are willing to put in the work. They recognize when you make the effort to use the correct pronouns.
The teens I have worked with in the very early days of Teen Science Cafés had a lot of leeway in designing the Cafés themselves. The Cafés were really a reflection of who they were. Our first round of leaders was all young women and non-binary participants, and they felt a central need to be inclusive. I was definitely there to support them, but they led a lot of the work on being inclusive. Teen leaders were very involved in recruiting participants. We talk about the different ways that people might have their needs met in the spaces too. We also talk through situations and think about how to include participants that we might not know from school or we have never met before. And we prepare people who present to youth about who we are and our values so they understand that we do use gender-neutral language and we do not expect them to do an activity that would split youth apart into binary gender groups [i.e., boys vs. girls]. The meeting space is important too. We have been meeting at our public library because we feel like that is a really welcoming inclusive space. Libraries and librarians often really know who is in the community.
One big piece of advice for people working in rural spaces or outside urban centers is that there are queer people there! We are still around, even if you do not see us. Often, though, the LGBTQ+ community may not have the same types of organizations to support and help them in rural locales. So it is even more important if you are working in rural areas as a STEM educator to be in the role of ally. There is training in allyship (for example from the Trevor Project and PFLAG)—that is something I recommend for anybody working with youth.
Remember that students might not have the support that they need at home or in some of their classes at school. It is important to be an adult (maybe the only one in a youth’s life in a rural place) who values them, even in small but meaningful ways such as using their correct pronouns. Acknowledge that queer identity and queer achievement are things to be celebrated: If you can do that and show students that they too could be a STEM person, it solidifies their STEM identity.
In some circumstances, queer people in rural spaces are not as comfortable being out. But the students themselves often understand so much more deeply than adults do, even in rural places. I think if you work in a youth program you should connect with a Gender and Sexuality Alliance, as queer people are the experts in their own identity. Be humble when you approach them. Students in your group may belong to these organizations, and they can help get the word out about your programming, especially Teen Science Cafés. Just make sure that teens feel supported by adults in doing this outreach work.
First, be cognizant of the fact that presenters and adult collaborators may not want to be out. That is something that I have been really cautious about. I never want to out somebody and I want to make sure they are comfortable in telling their own story. But I do think that there are potential presenters where their queer identity is something they want to highlight about themselves.
One thing you can do to raise visibility without putting pressure on individual adults in your community is to work with existing resources. For example, you can download posters of “500 Queer Scientists” and post them in the space where you are meeting. Or show some of the short videos of queer scientists from New Science.
There are key organizations doing a lot of interesting work. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has an affinity group that I am a member of. Right now we are working on a research agenda. What are the gaps in the research? How can we make things better? AAM includes museums of all kinds, such as children’s museums, art museums, and natural history museums. And oSTEM (Out in STEM) is an organization that serves LGBTQ+ students in STEM. They have many graduate student members. One could connect with them to find STEM professionals who are closer to the age of our teens. I think that there is a level of excitement you get out of interacting with somebody closer to your own age.
True inclusion, true access and equity should not be tagged on to the end of a program. Any program you design should be built specifically and intentionally with inclusion in mind.
Special thanks to Michelle Hall and Michael Mayhew, the founders of the Teen Science Café Network. We are grateful to Michael and to Jacob Sagrans for reviewing early versions of the manuscript, and for editing subsequent versions. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation under grant no. DRL-1906874. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Jan Mokros is Senior Research Scientist at Science Education Solutions and lives in Brunswick, Maine. Jen Tuttle Parsons is Executive Director of the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery in Athens, Ohio.
Find your local university/college LGBTQ+ center (for potential outreach/collaboration—also some have ally trainings)
Cech, E. 2013. The (mis)framing of social justice: Why ideologies of depoliticization and meritocracy hinder engineers’ ability to think about social injustices. In Engineering education for social justice, ed. J.C. Lucena, 67–84. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6350-0_4
Cech, E.A., and T.J. Waidzunas. 2021. Systemic inequalities for LGBTQ professionals in STEM. Science Advances, 7 (3). https://www.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abe0933
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