By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


Black History Month is upon us, and it is of course a fantastic opportunity to reflect on the history of Black people in the UK, and honour their contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), culture and society.

A role awareness months like this can also have is to highlight that, while of course it is worthwhile and necessary to dedicate time to celebrating diversity in the UK, this acknowledgement and celebration needs to happen on a day-to-day basis for inclusion to be more than an annual event. Recognition of eminent Black people and role models in STEM, and indeed all fields, must be incorporated into life and culture.

The impact of Black teachers

This is especially true in STEM education. There is evidence to show that if children are exposed to role models in their adolescent years, it can positively impact how they perceive the world and themselves. Multiple studies have shown the power of Black children and young people having Black role models to look up to. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity & Inclusion in STEM, for which the British Science Association is the secretariat, published a report on equity in the UK STEM workforce which found that Black people are underrepresented across the boardand the roots of the demographics of a workforce can be found, to some degree, in education. 

Teachers can be particularly influential role models. A study carried out by American academics found a positive relationship between having at least one Black teacher and academic attainment, particularly among less affluent Black children. Another academic American study may have found the reason for this, concluding that Black teachers have higher expectations of Black students than White teachers do, which in turn leads to higher engagement and attainment from the students.

Teachers, then, are crucial. However, government data from 2019 found that Black people of both African and Caribbean origin are underrepresented in the teaching profession, while White people are overrepresented. And so, while teachers can provide excellent guidance as role models, Black children and young people may go through the education system with few or no teachers who look like them.

Black role models in higher education

The presence, or lack thereof, of Black educators has also been shown to have a significant impact in higher education, particularly for female STEM students . Assistant professors of psychology at Elon University and Indiana University, Dr Eva Pietri and Dr India Johnson, conducted research into this.   

Part of the study worked with female students who were enrolled in university studying STEM, one set from a university predominantly attended and taught by White people, and one set from a historically Black university. Science Daily reported on the results: “Across both samples, the higher number of Black female and Black male role models the students had, the more belonging they felt at their institutions, again, highlighting the importance of access to Black men and Black women role models.”

These results echo those of the importance of Black teachers in schools. But Black people are similarly underrepresented in academia in the UK, as in school teaching. Just 1% of professors across all fields are Black. In STEM subjects the problem is particularly stark.. A recent article published by BBC News discusses the inequalities Black scientists can face as they try to progress in academia in the UK. The article cites a report from the Royal Society which shows that Black scientists are least likely to hold a professor post.

How Black STEM academics make a difference

Dr Amos Fatokun, a Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology, practiced as a pharmacist in Nigeria before spending seven years undertaking fellowships around the world. Dr Fatokun was the first member of his immediate family to go to university and found his role models through research. “I also began to learn, through books, of Black individuals in the developed world who I could consider as role models, based on their exploits.” He continued: “I read about the neurosurgeon, Ben Carson, while I was still in my country Nigeria.”

Role models showed Dr Fatokun that his future plans could become reality: “While I had loved and been determined to pursue science since I was young, the Black STEM role models (I did not necessarily have a personal contact with all of them) provided some inspiration and fortification for my ambitions, such that I was assured achieving those ambitions was possible.”

These sentiments were echoed by Dr Omoleye Ojuri, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Civil Engineering and the Built Environment. Dr Ojuri had previously worked as a quantity surveyor in Nigeria. She said: “Role models did form part of my aspirations to pursue my career in quantity surveying. It made my career journey a bit easier when one is aware that there were individuals in the profession before you and are doing great.”

Dr Omoleye Ojuri (L) and Dr Amos Fatokun (R)

Dr Ojuri continued to say that ‘In terms of my significant scholarship achievements for two of my degrees, I have tons of students who look up to me to be successful with funding/grant applications for postgraduate studies.” Having a lecturer like Dr Ojuri, whose footsteps students can look to follow, is even more significant when one takes into account that that Black postgraduate students are the most likely to leave their studies with no award.  

Dr Fatokun has also mentored Black colleagues and students, and is keen to see changes that would make the path smoother for Black children interested in science: “STEM organisations need to strive to understand better the socio-cultural, economic and related factors that affect the progression of young, Black children and do their best to address these in practical ways.”

So, educators as role models, having faith in Black children in the formative years of their education, showing older Black students that they do belong in STEM academia and industries, is vital. Black History Month is, in part, about looking back at the contributions Black people have made and remaining vigilant to oppression. It must also be an opportunity to look at the present, and the changes that need to be made to ensure a better future.  

Dr Ojuri is also the founder of the Fullexcellence Foundation for women, a non-profit organisation, that ‘supports excellence in STEM education and career for girls and women for Nigeria’s growth and development.’