5 Empowering Black History Month Science Lessons

Introduction

Every month is Black History Month.

This is especially true in science. I say this because African Americans have contributed to science in ways that impact our everyday lives, health, and well-being. 

African Americans’ contributions to science weren’t always recognized or even consensual. This is important for all students to learn and understand, regardless of their backgrounds or time of year.

Some of my most impactful lessons have focused on African Americans in science. I taught in Title I Schools in Brooklyn.

In the middle schools I taught at, most of my students were African American. The high school I taught at was incredibly diverse, as I taught students new to the country who were learning English. 

Image of Jessica Payano (me) with a group of students.
Blasting off student-made rockets with my students

Regardless of the school’s demographics, when I taught about Henrietta Lacks, the women referred to as the Hidden Figures, and the men of Tuskegee, my students were engaged, rightfully outraged, and inspired. 

My Black students needed to see successful STEM professionals who looked like them. It was equally important for all my students (regardless of race) to understand the impact that African Americans made and continue to make in STEM. 

Therefore, in honor of Black History Month, I write this blog post (to all my fellow science teachers) with a great deal of pride and anticipation.

I know your students will benefit from these Black History Month science lessons (aka any time of the year science lessons) that highlight the immense sacrifices and racism African Americans experienced as they contributed to science in a society that typically didn’t honor their contributions.

Some Black History Month activities commonly seen online highlight the civil rights movement and significant figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. They are also often typically geared toward young students. 

This post will focus on lesson plans for middle school (and high school) science classrooms. 

While February is a great time to focus on Black Americans’ contributions to science, any time is the perfect time to teach about the important contributions made by African Americans in science to students of all backgrounds.  

5 Engaging Black History Month Science Lessons. Image of a drawing of Katherine Johnson.

1. Hidden Figures in Science

The contributions of African Americans in space exploration were largely overlooked and overshadowed.

The movie Hidden Figures (based on Hidden Figures – The American Dream and Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race) helped bring mainstream attention to these contributions.

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, collectively referred to as the “Hidden Figures,” made indispensable contributions to space exploration despite egregious and abhorrent racial and gender discrimination. 

The Hidden Figures of Space Science. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, collectively referred to as the "Hidden Figures" made indispensable contributions to space exploration despite egregious and abhorrent racial and gender discrimination. Image of From Hidden Figure to Modern Figures Bookmarks copyright NASA.
Click on the image above to download these free bookmarks from NASA

Katherine Johnson was a math genius. She was rightfully celebrated for her mathematical prowess and calculated trajectories for iconic missions like Apollo 11. These missions were dependent on Johnson’s intelligence, perseverance and calculations.

Dorothy Vaughan, as the first Black woman supervisor at NACA/NASA, played a pioneering role in computer programming, ensuring the agency’s transition to electronic computers.

Mary Jackson was the first African American woman to work as an engineer at NASA. During her tenure there, she broke barriers in aerospace engineering. She authored about a dozen reports on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. 

While not one of the Hidden Figures, Mae Jemison was the first African American woman admitted into NASA’s astronaut training program. In 1992, she made history as she was the first African American woman to travel to space. 

Text reads - Mae Jemison made history as the first African American woman to travel to space.

There are many opportunities to teach students not only science but also critical thinking, reading, writing, and social justice and impact through the lives of these incredible women. Here is a lesson plan idea related to the Hidden Figures and Mae Jemison:

African American Women in Space Science Biography and Research Project – After doing research, students can get creative and make a biography for one of the four women. This project can be completed individually or in groups. 

Whether done independently or in groups, this project merges research with creativity. After conducting research (start with the links in the names above), students craft detailed biographies, presenting the lives and accomplishments of these amazing women. 

The project offers flexibility, allowing students to choose presentation formats – be it written reports with illustrations, visual presentations, or inventive displays like posters and dioramas. 

Through this project, students not only learn about the lives of women and their contributions, but it also allows the teaching of research, writing, and presentation skills.

An added teacher bonus is that student work created from this project serves as anchor charts or bulletin board projects that honor diversity and the significant contributions of these extraordinary women. 

Scaffolding Tip – To make this project accessible to all learners, including those learning English (multilingual learners) and reading below grade level, incorporate the following scaffolds:

1. Choose the texts for students. 

2. Modify the text to include key scaffolds.

3. Include graphic organizers that provide a place for students to organize and write their notes/drafts. 

4. Provide writing frames and/or discussion frames as students collaborate to work on their projects and prepare for their presentations. 

2. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

As uncomfortable as it might feel to face the truth, we owe it to our students to teach them about the horrific experiences of African Americans in the United States. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is an example of this.

Conducted from 1932 to 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis study stands as a haunting example of gross ethical misconduct and racism in scientific research. 

In this study, the United States Public Health Service (A United States government agency) targeted African American men in impoverished communities to observe the natural progression of syphilis without their informed consent. 

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study targeted African American men in impoverished communities to serve the natural progression of syphilis without their informed consent.

As if the lack of informed consent was not bad enough, it gets worse.

Even after the discovery of penicillin (an effective treatment for syphilis), participants were deliberately denied access to this cure. The study’s horror lies in its blatant disregard for the well-being and autonomy of its subjects, African American men.

Teaching students about the study and the men of Tuskegee teaches them about the scientific method, infectious disease, and the medical ethics in science. 

Text reads - science topics related to the Tuskegee Syphilis study - Medical Ethics, The Scientific Method, Infection disease and immunology.

It serves as a cautionary tale, prompting discussions on the ethical responsibilities researchers bear towards their participants, racism in the United States, and the enduring impact of unchecked power in the scientific community. 

Understanding the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is crucial for instilling a sense of ethical awareness and responsibility in future generations of scientists. It can also empower students of color to become STEM professionals that serve their communities.

While this is an incredibly sensitive topic, it can and should be taught appropriately to students in middle school. I have done this in a number of ways.

One of these is through the movie Ms. Ever’s Boys, a fictional but historically based account of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

Ms. Ever’s Boys Movie Viewing Worksheet and Discussion – Begin the lesson by asking students what they think about the scientific method as it relates to clinical trials on people. This can be done through a K-W-L chart. Students can list what they already know about the topic. 

Sample answers might include – adults sign up for studies, they get paid,  you get free medicine, people who participate are helping other people they don’t even know, etc. 

In the next column, students write what they would like to learn about the scientific method as it relates to experiments involving people.

They may answer things like what are the laws around what scientists can and can’t do with human subjects?, etc. Finally, students will fill out the last column based on what they learned from the movie.

Image of a scene from Ms. Evers Boys movie.
Scene from the movie Ms. Ever’s Boys copyright HBO

During the movie, students can fill out a worksheet that summarizes the parts of the scientific method as they relate to the study and how medical ethics were violated in the pursuit of scientific research. 

What students learn from the lesson can later be used in combination with the other lesson ideas listed in this post for a Socratic seminar. 

3. African American Inventors

Many of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science and engineering practices focus on the processes used by famous African American Inventors. 

Therefore, a great way to commemorate Black History Month (and celebrate the contributions African Americans have made to innovation in science any time of the year) is by having students engage in a design challenge inspired by the work of African American inventors such as George Washington Carver and Mark Dean. 

George Washington Carver is renowned for his groundbreaking work in agricultural science. Carver’s innovations revolutionized farming practices, emphasizing crop diversification and sustainable agriculture. 

One of these was the Jesup Wagon. The Jesup Wagon was a horse-drawn mobile classroom and laboratory that Mr. Carver used to demonstrate soil chemistry concepts.

The Jesup Agricultural Wagon Copyright J. Stephen Conn

In computer science, African American scientists and inventors have made significant strides. Their contributions, largely overshadowed, include the pioneering work of figures like Dr. Mark Dean, an American engineer who played a crucial role in the development of the personal computer.

Dr. Dean began working with IBM in 1980 and currently holds three of IBM’s original nine PC patents. Dr. Dean’s work impacts us all as our work and lives are dependent on devices that his work created and influenced. 

An African-American Inspired Engineering Design Challenge – In this lesson(s), have students create a prototype for an invention. Students can do research on George Washington Carver, Dr. Mark Dean, or other African American Inventors. Then, using the engineering design process, students can create their own prototypes. 

4. Social Justice and STEM

Mr. Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught African American astronomer, surveyor, and mathematician. 

One of his most notable achievements was the creation of a series of highly accurate almanacs between 1792 and 1797, which included astronomical calculations, weather predictions, and tide tables. Banneker’s almanacs gained widespread recognition for their precision and reliability.

In 1791, Banneker applied his knowledge and expertise to create the borders and layout for America’s new capital city. 

Despite his intelligence and accomplishments, Benjamin Bannker, a descendant of slaves, witnessed and experienced racial oppression throughout his lifetime. 

Image of the title page of one of Benjamin Banneker's almanacs 1792. Image of Thomas Jefferson's response to Benjamin Banneker's letter.

In 1971, he wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson. In this eloquent and impassioned letter, Banneker criticized the contradiction between the ideals of freedom and equality espoused in the newly formed United States and the institution of slavery that persisted. 

Drawing on his extensive knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, Banneker highlighted the irony of Jefferson’s ownership of slaves while advocating for liberty and equality. 

He eloquently argued for the inherent rights of all individuals, regardless of race, to enjoy the fruits of freedom and self-determination. 

Banneker’s letter was a powerful testament to his intellect, moral conviction, and commitment to challenging the prevailing societal norms of his time. 

Write a letter to a senator – After learning about Banneker, students research an issue that disproportionately affects marginalized groups of people (food deserts in low-income neighborhoods, lack of access to affordable healthcare, etc.). 

After conducting research, students write a letter to a local politician or state lawmakers highlighting what they learned about the issue, how it affects people, and their request for action. 

5. Henrietta Lack’s Immortal Cells

Teaching about Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells should not be limited to the month of February. Her story and the contributions her body has made to science relate to cells, vaccines and immunity, STEM, and medical ethics. 

Mrs. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who unknowingly contributed to medical research when her cells, known as HeLa cells, were harvested. These cells played a pivotal role in significant scientific advancements, including the development of the polio vaccine and breakthroughs in cancer research.

Image of the cells of Henrietta Lacks under the microscope. Text reads - Mrs. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who unknowingly contributed to medical research when her cells, known as HeLa cells, were harvested.
HeLa cells labeled with fluorescent dyes

The story of her life prompts discussions about the importance of informed consent in medical research and raises broader questions about racism in medicine and the ethical responsibilities of scientists and institutions when using human biological materials.

Henrietta Lacks Reading Comprehension – Teaching students how to read isn’t exclusively for Language Arts class. Teaching reading comprehension in science promotes critical thinking, content knowledge acquisition as well as literacy skills. 

Reading comprehension can be used as a full lesson and doesn’t have to be boring! Have students read, annotate, and answer questions related to Henrietta Lacks. This lesson can include a warm-up, direct instruction, and assessment to make it more engaging.

Begin the lesson by activating prior knowledge around the word consent or permission. This can be done through a word web, free-write, or a think-pair-share. 

You could even give students a packet of medical forms typically given to patients to sign. Facilitate a discussion about the magnitude of the text, the language used, and whether or not they think their parents or any adults truly understand everything they read and signed. 

After reading, students can get creative and honor Mrs. Lack’s contribution to medicine through a medium of their choosing (a YouTube video, TikTok video, Instagram carousel, or podcast episode).  

Conclusion

While February is a great time, celebrating the contributions of African Americans in science can (and should) be done throughout the year. 

Teach about the contributions Katherine Johnson, Dorthy Vaughan, or Mary Jackson made to NASA and science despite being treated like inferiors in your Earth & Space unit.

As you incorporate the Engineer Design Process throughout the year, teach students about George Washington Carver’s use of the process to revolutionize agriculture.

Highlight how Henrietta Lacks has directly impacted our health and well-being during your cells and human body unit. 

No matter when you decide to teach your science students about these historical figures and amazing Black leaders, these lessons are a great opportunity to diversify your science instruction and enable your African American students and students of all backgrounds to learn how the field of science was spaced and has benefitted from African Americans that weren’t always valued. 

Lit Science is a Black, woman-owned company. Our mission is to make grade-level science accessible to diverse learners. In the near future, we look forward to offering Black History Month science lessons that are differentiated and accessible to your diverse student body. 

We look forward to partnering with you as you show your students how much you value their cultures and experiences. 

For more about our mission, click here

Interested in graphic organizers you can use in your classroom to accompany these Black History Month Science lessons? Download Lit Science’s free graphic organizers.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *