Of Past, Present, and Future STEM Selves

Representation matters. Kids need to see people who look like themselves reflected in the world around them, and in jobs and roles that perhaps they haven’t thought about as accessible for themselves. However, many schools only take the opportunities of special “history month”s to bring images and other media into school settings to engage with the histories, presents, and futures of traditionally marginalized people. In this post, I make the argument for why images of career STEM people who are BIPOC and other traditionally marginalized groups are so important, and then provide a list of resources from which to download and print, or direct order, images and stories of career STEM BIPOC curated by myself and members of our broader online community (shout out to everyone on Twitter who responded to my post #possibleselves, including @djsardine @EllisMathEd @AliciaJohal @benjamindickman, and for connecting me to @GlobalMathDept)

Of Past, Present, and Future

Here in the United States, it’s Black History Month. In her blog post Ending Curriculum Violence, Stephanie P. Jones wrote:

Teaching Tolerance’s report Teaching Hard History: American Slavery indicates that our failure to educate students on this subject means there is also a lapse in student understanding of racial inequality, past and present. Not only is slavery being mistaught; it’s also the only thing some students are learning about Black history at school. The transatlantic slave trade and its resulting horror within the American slavery system are often essentialized as all Black history itself.

Her point is well taken. The curriculum in schools during our various “History Months” is intended to showcase the unique contributions of particular groups of people who make America the amazing place it is. However, a full critique of all curricula aside, Jones makes two points about how problematic a focus on just slavery during Black History Month is (and let’s be honest, she shouldn’t have to make these points for us. Totally separate blog post): 1) It is often the only history students learn about all black people in the United States, completely ignoring their existence and contributions at any other point in time in history, and 2) it is typically mis-taught, with a hyper focus on slavery.

Thus, while many people find the notion of “______History Month” both an opportunity as well as a symptom of larger issues (eg, “Why do we only celebrate black excellence in February?”), that month is our chance to dig into the often obscured contributions of the individuals and collectives who were among us and are among us, but without essentializing or inflicting violence on people who identify as part of those groups. And as many ethnic studies scholars continue to remind us, knowledge of your past is essential to understanding your present and future. For more, see my comadre’s blog, Xicana PhD.

Possible Selves

Who can you be? Who can you see yourself being? How we throw around terms like, “I could really see myself doing that,” or “I just can’t see you doing that kind of work.” In our everyday language, we connect our words with our vision. Certainly, phrases like “I can see myself doing that” privilege the world of people with sight, and most of our world privileges those with sight. There’s, dare I say, a hegemony of expressions about vision and sight used as a proxy for imagination?

In the academic world of identity studies, envisioning future selves is referred to as the concept of possible selves (Markus & Nurias, 1986). How can you become that which you cannot imagine? How can you realize what you have not envisioned?

Our personal stories are filled with experiences that give us glimpses of possible selves. Being able to see yourself in someone else’s position is closely tied to empathy and imagination. My mother in the kitchen and my mother at work, memories of what a life of motherhood and career could look like. My first and only black woman teacher, Dr. Sanders, my senior year of high school, who hung her PhDs on the wall (yes, plural.) In turn other experiences may have impressed on us undesirable future selves that we could see ourselves becoming. On the news, murderers and rapists, violent offenders, as we look for ourselves in the good news.

All these images are internalized and processed, some less or more than others, depending on what we are exposed to. My colleagues in media studies have done the research to show us that yes, the more you are exposed to particular images and ideas the more you find them normal (see for example, Brooks & Hebert, 2006, in The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Communication). The black and brown violent offenders on tv? Are those my future, my possible selves?

Plaster Your Walls with Images of BIPOC in the Mathematical Sciences

Of course the process of becoming – an identity process – is more complex than just the images we see. However, the role of representation is huge. In particular, when it comes to the figured worlds of mathematics, science, technology, engineering – fields traditionally closed off to minoritized and marginalized communities in the US – envisioning possible selves matters a lot.

Role Models. Possible Selves. Through the window, the possibility and through the door the path.  We need images in classrooms and up and down the school hallways showing children from a variety of marginalized communities that yes, this could be them too.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Visual representation matters. While having children research and do reports on role models in STEM fields will definitely support broadening their understanding of who can be and who is a career STEM person (and I intentionally use the word “career” as a modifier, since we are all STEM people, but don’t all pursue STEM careers), my argument is that the picture is key. A picture says, well, about a million words. (I’m updating our old adage to account for the density of modern lexicons.)
  • Reading does not precede identity formation. Kind of obvious maybe, but we sometimes forget that the young children in our care who are learning to read are very, very adept at making sense of the world around them. Images are VERY powerful to a young child, in particular if they are not yet reading and making sense of images they see.
  • There’s something special about the image that does not impact us like the writing. As teachers we know that for students who are seeing (as opposed to fully blind students), visual images make a big impact. While often we are concerned with the visual scaffolds for a lesson, think of images of people who are black and brown, neurodiverse, LGBTQIA, and a variety of combinations within the entire learning environment: school, home, any everywhere. Certainly, you could use student-created images or posters to decorate the environment. So many art projects could be undertaken with BIPOC STEM folx as the subjects! The key is that the images are in the environment, to be viewed everyday, to be entries into possible selves.

Here is a google doc that I will update now and then with a curated list of resources, many provided by twitter colleagues including @djsardine @EllisMathEd @AliciaJohal @benjamindickman, and for connecting me to @GlobalMathDept who featured the following image from @DrKChilds, utilizing the Mathematically Gifted and Black site on the doc, in their newsletter. We use the #possibleselves to see what people are up to.


This image from the tweet below it, thanks @DrKChilds

I could make a whole blog post using a very similar argument on why images of noncareer STEM BIPOC plastered to the school walls is also important. After all, we just don’t all get equally recognized for the ways we are mathematical, and many of us don’t yet recognize how we are mathematical on a daily basis. By the way, spoiler alert: we are all math people, whether you believe you know a lot of math or a little, it turns out your hearth, mind, and soul are all mathematical. For me, to celebrate Black History Month, Latinx History Month, Native American, Women’s, LGBTQIA, and other groups who are contributors to our past, present, and future yet remain unrecognized in our curriculum, we should get rolling on providing those images of possible selves.

Certainly not just images determine whether one can take action to make a possible self a reality. [For more on this, see for example the psycho-social work of Oyserman, Bybee, and Terry (2006).] Yet the first step is the imagination, the inspiration, and seeing one’s own social identities represented in the worlds that perhaps seemed closed off to you. I know that’s one small thing that makes a big difference that we can all do as teachers.


Check out work by @roricomics, a talented artist who sells her stuff here https://www.giantkittenhead.com/posters-prints

notes: Featured Image for this post is the landing page for https://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/  


Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.41.9.954

Oyserman, D., Bybee, D.  and Terry, K. (2006). Possible Selves and Academic Outcomes: How and When Possible Selves Impel Action. Journal of personality and social psychology. 91. 188-204. 10.1037/0022-3514.91.1.188. 

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