Transforming science education through research-driven innovation

Meet Dr. Nancy Hopkins-Evans, BSCS Associate Director for Program Impact

August 3, 2022

Dr. Nancy Hopkins-Evans recently joined BSCS Science Learning as Associate Director for Program Impact. This is a new position, created to lead our efforts to increase the reach of BSCS’s programs and resources—particularly among underserved populations.

As Nancy takes on this new challenge, she reflects on the way science education has impacted her own experiences and identity.

Read her story below.

The pandemic and racial unrest were the backdrop when I was invited to serve as a committee member for the Call to Action for Science Education, a consensus report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). During this time, a diverse group of leaders from different education sectors spent six to eight months reviewing research, seeking ideas from educators, and engaging in robust discussions about the report. It was an inspiring and eye-opening experience for me, a reminder of the work that remained and a wake-up call for me to consider how I could re-engage given my expertise and experiences as an African-American woman with multiple science degrees. 

The tag line from this report—Better, More Equitable Science Education—has become a constant reminder of how my personal and professional journeys are reflected in this short and powerful phrase. 

I am a first-generation college graduate who completed two advanced degrees, terminating in a PhD in biological chemistry. Throughout two postdoctoral experiences, I was one of few, if not the only, African-American and/or female professionals. I am the product of the science education system that is referenced in the Call to Action for Science Education, and I have spent my entire career working within this same system, from the university to K-12 schools to state education agencies. 

I find myself excited, encouraged, disappointed, and angry as I think about the changes that have and have not taken place in science education. 

As an elementary and middle school student, my interest in science was rooted in curiosity and the misguided notion that I could explore, experiment, and discover ideas about science all by myself. This was likely borne of images of the mad scientist, mostly male and White, in a lab wearing a white coat with lots of test tubes and a Bunsen burner as his only company. That idea fit with my natural introversion, which at that age I did not understand and was unable to articulate. My early love of science was rooted in some misconceptions about how scientists worked, with limited examples of diverse scientists. However, this lack of diversity did not deter my interest and pursuit of multiple degrees in science. And, my persistence in a discipline and community that rarely reflected or embraced my lived experiences informed my career choices and trajectory. 

Deciding to major in chemistry as an undergraduate was an outgrowth of my ten-year-old self’s declaration that I was going to be a chemist. Of course, I had little to no knowledge of what this career entailed. I was influenced by parents who purchased for me a microscope and chemistry set without question and a high school chemistry teacher who made chemistry fun and interesting. Truthfully, I believe I had a level of intrinsic motivation that I am unable to explain to this day. 

There are a couple of things about my undergraduate education that had a great impact on me. I attended a small liberal arts women’s college where all the chemistry faculty were women with doctorate degrees in chemistry. This was remarkable. Even today, the numbers of women faculty in chemistry departments do not reflect our population distribution nationally or in college enrollment. My senior research project was another defining experience. It was how I discovered the social nature of science, and how I learned that doing science results in more questions than answers. I was hooked and on my way to pursuing two advanced degrees in chemistry and biological chemistry … with many more lessons about diversity, access, and opportunity to come. 

Two graduate degrees, two postdoctoral experiences, and subsequent jobs at collegiate, K-12, and nonprofit institutions have each provided me with insights that paved the way for me to embrace this new role and challenge as BSCS’s Associate Director for Program Impact. 

Here are a few lessons learned over more than 25 years of education and work: 

  • Scholarships and fellowships provide opportunity and access to degree attainment, but support to become a valued and respected member of that community is needed to ensure professional growth and success.
  • Science is assumed to be objective. That makes it difficult to challenge and interrogate the social nature of its practice, which involves human decision making and biases reflected in who does science, who teaches it, and what is researched and studied.
  • The science education community is small. It must make greater, intentional efforts to expand who is included in key discussions and ensure women and people of color are in leadership positions.
  • The science education community must find ways to partner with organizations and educators that currently support literacy, reading, and mathematics given the continued focus of time and resources in these content areas. 
  • Science remains a fundamental pillar of our collective humanity. The explicit pursuit and inclusion of a community that reflects this humanity is a worthy and necessary endeavor.

It is difficult for me to separate my personal experiences from my professional experiences—but I have come to realize that this separation is unnecessary.

I plan to leverage the full breadth and depth of these experiences to create impact alongside my new colleagues at BSCS Science Learning. This fills me with the same quiet expectation and anticipation I had as a ten-year-old wannabe chemist. However, I am a few years older and I am quite impatient.