African American Scientist Project

3 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT research and write a short biographical essay about an influential African American scientist during Black History Month.

Big Idea

The contributions of African American scientists are wide-ranging and have impacted all scientific fields.


At my urban school, approximately 30% of the student body is African-American.  It is important to introduce students to people in science who have been successful and have similar backgrounds to themselves.  A few years ago I joked to a colleague that I was tired of teaching only about dead white guys when talking about chemists.

Ideally, this would be done between units, which I could have done right at the start of this unit.  However, since I haven't taught the mole and stoichiometry to regular students in 3 years, I wasn't sure if I could take class time to spend on research and writing.  I assigned this paper at the start of February, provided two days to research or write during the month, and collected it on the last day of Black History Month.

I revised my list of scientists this year to remove some old ones that everyone knows such as George Washington Carver.  I wanted students to have the same opportinities to contact active scientists during their research just as they did on the Latino/Latina Scientist Project.  Having some scientists that were little known to me as well as the students helped keep the project fresh for me and them.  This site provided some newer names for me to use in this year's project.

I am fortunate to have 14 computers in my science lab, but for this project I needed one computer per student.  To achieve this, we often share labs, with another teacher allowing half of my class to use the computers in their classroom.  This year, I chose to use one of our mobile netbook carts to supplement my classroom computers.  Additionally, many students preferred to work on their smartphones, reliving the tech burden.

While this is certainly not a content based project, it does align nicely to Science and Engineering Practice #8: Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.

Project Introduction

10 minutes

When students enter, they hear, or have already heard our daily announcements introducing Black History Month and our person of the day.  Our African-American Cultural Awareness club reads a short bio of a notable African-American each day with our morning announcements.

I pass out the African American Scientist Paper 2015 sheet to each table.  While I'm passing them out, I hear one student tell a table mate "I wondered if we would do this again for Black History Month."  I tell the class that we will be researching a notable African-American scientist during February.  I tell them that anyone not on this list would have to be approved by me, but that they should be able to find someone on the list to work on.

I explain the parameters again, that the paper will be 25 points in their practice (15%) category.  If they choose to do a poster, PowerPoint or video to accompany the paper, they can earn a quiz-worth of extra credit in our Other Assessment (20%) category.  I remind students of the basics, that it should be 1-3 pages, be their own writing, cite at least three sources, and can be typed or handwritten.

I ask if there are questions, and the one that comes up is "Can we just make a poster or PowerPoint?"  I explain that the goal is to write a simple, expository paper explaining the facts of the person's life, so they MUST write the paper.  If they only make a presentation, then they will get a 15/25 in the practice grade and no extra credit.

Getting no other questions, I dismiss students to get on a computer or their phone and begin to decide on a research subject.

Research and Writing Time

40 minutes

The remainder of the time students are making Google searches of the various scientists, trying to find someone that interests them.  Some students recognize three of the names and gravitate towards them.

  • Vivian Thomas: Last year on my recommendation, some of our Biology classes showed "Something the Lord Made," an HBO documentary on Thomas.
  • Mae Jemison:  Ms. Jemison went to high school about five miles north east of our community, so students are familiar with her name.
  • Percy L. Julian:  The south-side Chicago Public High School named for Julian is about six miles from our campus, so students were curious to research who the building was named for.

Students asked to add three names.  The first was George Washington Carver, and I told them they already knew enough about him that we wanted some new people.  The other two which I have since added were:

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson:  I was embarrassed to have left him off, and remember him when a kid asks "What about the guy who did that Cosmos show?"
  • Jerry Lawson: The creator of the cartridge video game system.

Students spend the period searching.  They were hoping for a similar resource to the SACNAS site which gave short profiles of all the Latino/Latina scientists, but it just isn't present in this case.

I gave students one additional full period to research, and used this as an anchor assignment whenever students completed work early in class.  On the 27th, about 45% of students submitted a paper.  For the reason why they didn't finish, see my reflection above about Grade Weighting.

I have attached six samples of student work from the project.  The first, is an essay about Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former Surgeon General.  This was one of the weakest submissions.  It is mostly an outline of facts, without any anecdotes or stories regarding her work.  At the least, in an essay about Dr. Elders I would expect some discussion of the controversy regarding her comments on the need for adequate sex education in the US.  The lack of sources beyond "Google" is also problematic.

The next sample is on Dr. Benjamin Carson.  This essay was written by a young lady who has transitioned out of our ESL program in the past year.  This essay contains more stories from the life of Dr. Carson, but needs some help in planning to break up paragraphs and edit some grammatical errors.  In her references, Wikipedia is sourced.  I do not discourage students from using Wikipedia for science projects, as I find that it is increasingly well curated.  However, I do have a discussion with students about the risks of using crowd-sourced sites and verifying their information.

Dr. Lloyd Hall was born in the Chicago area and was a chemist, which makes his inclusion in this project a no-brainer.  This is a pretty good effort, again by a student with transitional English skills.

This sample on Dr. Vivien Thomas begins as a very well constructed essay.  However, the student seems committed to keeping it only one page, which kept it from being outstanding.  This student asked specifically if Thomas was on the list after viewing "Something The Lord Made" the prior year.

Dr. Emeagwali was a new addition to our list of scientists this year.  I had never heard of Emeagwali prior to finding his name on a list, and reading this well structured essay detailing his accomplishments was one of my favorite moments of this project, as I learned as much as the student did.  I also enjoy how the student critiques Emagwali's claims on his own website based on information he gathered.

The final sample is the best written of the year.  This student also submitted one of the samples used for the Latino Scientist Project.  The essay is well structured, incorporates references within the body paragraphs, and tells the story of Dr. Julian without reading as a simple list of facts.  The works cited list is actually formatted using the MS Word bibliography tool, a skill that I have decided to teach next year for our research papers.