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BSCS Research Covered in 5280 Article About a Denver High School Biology Teacher

June 7, 2021

Can This Denver Teacher Make Biology Class More Inclusive?

Samuel Long has a history of working for equity for LGBTQ students and staff in education. His work on gender inclusive biology carries on that tradition.

By: Sarah Vitak

Samuel Long had always loved science. But in 2015, when he began his career as a high school biology teacher at DSST Stapleton High School (now called DSST Montview High School), he started to notice details in the curriculum that didn’t sit right with him. Classroom materials never defined the difference between sex and gender, for example, and they consistently used words like “male” and “female” without much nuance. “Readings called testosterone a ‘male hormone’ even though it plays a role in every person’s development,” Long says.

At first, Long didn’t say anything. This was how biology had been taught for a long time, after all, and he figured students wouldn’t be interested in digging deeper into research about the complexities of gender and sex.

But then, during one lesson, a reading referred to intersex chromosomal arrangements—sex chromosomes other than XX or XY—as “disorders of sexual development.” The phrasing, while accepted in some medical literature, obscured the robust debate being had amongst researchers, doctors, and advocates about the proper way to classify members of the intersex community. Many argue that the phrase “disorder” carries a negative connotation and obscures the fact that some intersex people live perfectly happy and healthy lives. Others point out that certain chromosomal variations do lead to health consequences, like short stature and heart defects associated with Turner syndrome (when a female is missing some or all of an X chromosome).

Long didn’t want to gloss over those conversations or risk alienating or invalidating his intersex and transgender students, including those who were not yet out. So, one day in 2015, he began class by telling students that sex and gender are separate, and that both can be on a spectrum. He was nervous, but the class was unfazed.

“I remember that day was the first time I had ever heard about chromosomes as they really are,” says Max Gregg, then a student in Long’s class. “There is all of this complication. And you can actually wind up having an unusually high number of sex chromosomes and have a completely normal and human life.”

And thus, an initiative to change how biology is taught was born.

Gender Inclusive Biology

The high school biology curriculum most teachers and schools use still takes a highly binary approach to sex, gender, and sexuality, even though scientists are learning more about how complex these topics can be. Students themselves, Long says, can undoubtedly see the shades and colors of sex, gender, and sexuality all around them.

Teaching biology the traditional way can leave students who aren’t straight or cisgender confused, isolated, disenfranchised, and disinterested in engaging in the classroom, Long says. According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN)’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, “LGBT high school seniors were more likely to be interested in studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) in college if their relevant high school classes had included positive LGBT content (35.8% vs. 18.5%).” The report also noted that LGBT students at schools with inclusive curricula were less likely by about half to have missed school in the past month and felt more connected to the school community.

Reading materials that emphasize that the male/female binary is rooted in biology can lead to more prejudice against trans people, according to research published in 2018.

A 2019 study from Colorado Springs’ BSCS Science Learning (the nonprofit studies and improves science curricula and instruction), came up with a similar finding: Something as simple as teaching high school students about plant sexual differences made students more likely to believe in neurogenetic essentialism—the idea that the differences between men and women can be solely attributed to innate, biological variations in their genes and brains, even though most researchers agree that external factors like societal expectations play a role. One problem with neurogenetic essentialism? It can often lead girls to believe incorrectly they aren’t well-suited for science. “It’s validating a broader cultural idea they’ve acquired by growing up in our sexist society,” says Brian Donovan, a senior research scientist at BSCS that worked on the study. “The kids take that knowledge, and it reinforces their underlying ideas about gender.”

That’s why, in 2019, Long and two other biology teachers…

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