Students’ responses to evidence of systemic racism in a forensic science class: An evaluation

March 14, 2024, Noon to 1:00 p.m.

259 Educational Sciences and Zoom

Linden E. Higgins

Department of Biology, University of Vermont & WCER Visiting Researcher

Zoom link:

Many institutions require students to take classes exposing them to information about race and racism in the US. At the University of Vermont, Introduction to Forensic Biology is a high enrollment non-majors science class meeting this requirement, with the objective of promoting an understanding of race, racism, power, and privilege in the United States. We wanted to explore how our predominately white student body responded to this information. 

Most studies of the impact of such ‘diversity’ courses use pre-post surveys, which do not reveal students thinking or feelings around race and racism. To have a deeper understanding of students’ responses, we qualitatively analyzed anonymized student journal writing from the fall, 2022, course run. Undergraduate research assistants Aoi Tischer and Naia Watkins used a priori coding of emotions to categorize students’ feelings after reading an opinion piece discussing the Aubrey killing and taking the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. 

This analysis reveals the two most common emotional responses were discomfort or absence of emotion; guilt was rarely observed. Among students who did not deny either the article or the IBT, we found a high incidence of students reflecting on personal growth informed by their responses. Following presentation of our results within the conceptual frameworks of learning through discomfort and Tatum’s version of the 1990 Helm model of white racial identity development, I will discuss the implications for policy arguments around teaching equity-focused courses.