Episode 11: Sam Long on Science Education, Biological Diversity, and the Desire to Go to Space

A clownfish in an anemone.

Image: Clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris). (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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Charles 0:00
Hello, this is Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.

Tessa 0:04
And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.

Charles 0:07
And today I am ecstatic to say that we have as a guest science educator Sam Long.

Sam 0:13
Hi, thanks for having me on this show.

Charles 0:15
Thank you so much for coming on. How did you choose your academic focus when you were in school? And then after that, what led you to become an educator instead of a researcher?

Sam 0:27
Yeah, I think that’s a good question for me to ponder. I chose the major of physiology when I was in college. I always knew that if I were to go to college, I would pick some sort of science. And my parents are cell biologists and chemists – researchers. So toward the life science spectrum, I went. And in physiology, most students picture themselves going to medical school, definitely most of my friends did, that we studied together and everything, but I never really did. I wanted to be more independent, more financially independent, sooner than the pathways of medicine or grad school would be.

And I felt as a college student, that if I were to teach high school, that would be cool, because I could enjoy talking about science to other people. So at the beginning, it was much about the content. It was an interest in sharing my love for science. And then as I got more experience in teaching, I realized that the, the aspect of interacting with people and understanding people and how they each relate to science was just as exciting.

Charles 1:36
I initially became familiar with you because I found the Gender Inclusive Biology project last year. Something that has occurred to me in trying to think about teaching biology more inclusively – and by inclusively I mean… accurately and precisely – is that the nuances of biology are often difficult for beginning students to grasp, particularly when they’ve been taught a more simplified version for a long time. Does that ever seem to impede comprehension in students, like do students ever struggle with learning a more nuanced version of biology upfront, rather than slowly filling in those gaps later and later in their education?

Sam 2:23
To learn about biology in a complex way, to learn about spectrums rather than dichotomies, it’s not something that most students have been exposed to before. My approach is to start off with the complexity, to start off with the full truth, to the extent that I want them to know it in high school biology. And so that might mean, we’re going to learn that, that there’s chromosomes, X and Y chromosomes, and those play a role in development of physical sex characteristics, and that there’s two common combinations, XX and XY, and there’s other combinations as well, and that none of those are the same as somebody’s gender identity.

I think if you front load the vocabulary, like gender versus sex, biological sex, if that’s a term that you’re going to use, then the language literally helps students to understand it, and it helps them to verbalize any confusion they have as well. I have had students wonder, when we were learning about animal reproduction, when they saw that there’s clownfish that can change from male to female, for example, I know some of them went home to their families, and they were like, what did you learn about today? And they said, we learned this transgender fish, and then I got a couple of parent emails or calls, but that was misunderstanding them, they realized that I didn’t really drive it home hard enough that this is not the same as humans being transgender, that there are differences. Usually, that leads to a productive conversation.

I really like it when students do go home and talk about what they’ve learned, with their families, and when it comes to an issue, like a parent being concerned, like why are you teaching about transgender animals or transgender issues in general, I’ve been lucky to have the experience that the families that I’m talking to are understanding, and when I present the information, like I’ll just share with them the whole lesson, the handout, the slideshow and everything, and they haven’t been further concerned after that.

Charles 4:29
That actually gets into another thing that I’m curious about, which is how you feel about the positive tendency to often try to conflate sexual diversity, both in the sense of biological sex and in terms of sexual behavior in non human animals, with human diversity. For instance, there is one of the earlier young adult novels about… like, with a trans masculine protagonist was called Parrotfish and then the…

Sam 4:58
I remember Parrotfish, yeah.

Tessa 5:00
Yeah, definitely read that.

Charles 5:04
And so then the parrot fish is used as a metaphor for being trans. And I’ll be candid upfront, I find this a little bit annoying, but I wonder, (a) how you as a person feel about it, and then also, (b) as an educator, whether like the LGBTQ students that you teach, if they find anything positive in making those associations?

Sam 5:27
There are students that definitely find it validating and interesting. When we talked about geese, having same sex partnerships and raising children, this student that I had, she wrote on her desk in pen, Geese are gay, I’m gay, and then a happy face. I definitely don’t, uh… She wrote on the desk, which she shouldn’t have. That was [garbled] that she found it validating and interesting. Now, there are definitely people, young people and not young people that that will like that and kind of associate themselves with that. I think it’s important to be clear that there are differences. For a science teacher to say, Oh, this behavior in animals is similar to this behavior in humans, it’s different from like, maybe making it a metaphor in a book, or like when, when we talk to educators about diversity in animals. First, I think talking about animal diversity is a very appealing foray into this topic, because you’re not talking about humans, you are talking about animals that they can be cute drawings or images of them. There’s that safety in that distance and then any comparison to humans is only an analogy.

I think it’s important to look like it’s a an appealing first foray into talking about gender in the classroom, but it’s also more complex than it might seem, because when you tell students of any age, oh there’s gay swans, or there’s transgender fish, you’re using terms that have only been used to describe humans, and are terms of identity, of the self identified terms for humans. And then you’re using them on animals as kind of a shorthand to describe what is happening in the animals. And then I think when you do that, you need to have a conversation about… like a meta conversation about identity and terminology, that often leads to a question of, well, can we know animals’ gender, or gender identity? Or can we only know an animal’s sex based on their physical characteristics? And I think it gets more complex than one might bargained for that for the first time.

Charles 7:40
Well, I would say this topic is a great gateway to philosophy of biology, in the sense of using it as a foundation to talk about how our understanding of biology involves a lot of modelmaking and simplifications. Do you ever have any students who are more interested in that aspect, of thinking about not just sort of observational data, but but getting more into how biology works to construct reality?

Sam 8:12
I try to emphasize modelmaking more and more, and it’s in the next generation science standards so that’s something that a lot of teachers are trying to do. Yeah, when you observe the diversity in humans and in animals, that’ll only take you so far, until you find yourself naturally wanting to find some patterns and to maybe like, draw a diagram or make up some sort of system to understand it, and then that model that you make is only going to be useful or valid up to a certain point, and then you’re going to need to reevaluate that. I would love for students to be dealing with that more. Right now I think it’s pretty easy to take students up to the point of recognizing and appreciating the role of diversity in biology and I would like to think more about how to take them further to modeling.

Charles 9:03
In your lessons about this stuff, do you end up talking about humans?

Sam 9:07
Yeah, we’ll talk about humans in the genetics unit, like there’s the inheritance genetic unit, where you’re doing the Punnett squares, talking about simple inheritance, and then hopefully a bit more. And then there’s the the molecular genetics part, we’re talking about DNA to RNA to protein. And in both of those, we talk about the way that genes or DNA determine… what they determine about a person and what they don’t, that is the essential learning that I would like my students to have, that genes determine… they play some role in your development of physical characteristics and then there are things that they don’t determine, like your gender identity, and that there’s a spectrum on both of those, that neither physical characteristics nor gender identity are a binary.

Charles 9:55
I mean, a great lesson for everybody to learn. I’m also interested in the experience that you’ve had of being an educator, particularly in K 12, both just as a person, but also as an out trans person, what has your experience been with teenagers?

Sam 10:15
Most students respond pretty positively when I talk about being trans. I generally frame it as I want to, like, preempt any possible reaction they’ll have, I’ll say, well I’m telling you guys that I’m trans. Some of you might think that’s really cool. You might have heard of it before, you might have not heard about it before and be really confused. You might be upset in a way and all of that is natural. And we, I encourage them to process that, either by asking questions here or to talk about that somewhere else in their life. And I’ve had students, I’ve had a couple students that were upset about it and then reacted in a way that was like putting it back on me. So harassment and such. In one case, it was a student who came to my room… his class was after lunch, and so he came before lunch ended, and he took like, the photo of me that is on the door, that teachers get on their picture day, and then he put it… he moved it across the hall to the sign of the the gender neutral bathroom, like there were these single stall bathrooms. And he put it there, I guess, as to say that I, to point out that there was something different about my gender?

Okay. I will say your students are not very good at transphobia, for what it’s worth.

Charles 11:38
[laughs] Yeah. I mean, put in some effort, put it on the women’s bathroom, you know?

Sam 11:43
Right, right. That would have actually, yeah, that would have been much more inflammatory, yeah.

Charles 11:48
It’s just interesting to me, because often when we talk about inclusion and accessibility, and accommodations, etc, in education, we tend to talk about the experience of students, but I rarely ever see any discussion about what happens if the person who needs accessibility or harm mediation is an instructor. And I was just curious about the experience of being a trans instructor, and being an outwardly trans instructor, so I appreciate you talking about it. You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, but have you gotten any pushback from parents?

Sam 12:23
I haven’t personally received pushback from parents. The reactions I’ve gotten from students that are negative have been… there’s a student that moved my picture, and then there was one that, he did his exam and he did his exam, like with a different teacher, because he had an IEP, but he wrote Mrs – like, “m-r-s” – Long on the front of the test. And then we talked about after. And then I’ve had one incident where somebody did graffiti on the desk that was transphobic.

And I think with parents, they are more likely to talk to my principal or somebody else rather than to talk to me, because I know that they would know what they’re doing, which is they are expressing pushback on a teacher because of their identity strictly. And I have heard from parents that had questions that were more about the curriculum, that talking about gender in the curriculum. When… I’m going to assume, so I’m gonna assume that people have talked to my principal about me, even though I don’t know of happening, because I just, I bet it’s happened at least once or twice. I’ve been very fortunate to have principals that had my back, really, they never came to me and said, Look, this parent’s complaining, they never entertained any suggestions of moving a kid out of my class if they ever happened, because I guess I would know because the kids didn’t move from my class. And so that’s it’s been a generally positive and privileged experience.

I know that it would be different if… I’m a trans man who is, who transitioned before starting to teach in my career, and I pass and there’s nothing really students need to do to internalize the fact that I’m trans other than understand what it means about my past, and to understand what I’m teaching them. And so I know that it’s often different for trans educators who are transitioning at their school, or who don’t pass or are non binary and something about like the, the pronoun or the honorific they use just is inherently not following the gender binary.

We’re coming into a position in our schools where, as you say, it is different from a student being trans because one of the school’s responsibilities is, or should be, to protect students and give them all the opportunity to learn and really, that’s all they owe you as a trans student. Whereas for a teacher, you are there in a position of authority and a position of of respect, and you are there in the spotlight, sometimes, as a teacher. And so I think to to welcome and support a trans student is very different from welcoming and supporting a trans educator in a school, both from a legal standpoint of the rights and in terms of feeling and in terms of the the tone. If somebody puts a trans educator in a position, as a teacher, in a position of power, in a position of authority, that, that I think makes a very strong statement.

Charles 15:31
I’m also interested, because I know in at least one podcast, I think you talked about how you have had an overall pretty positive experience implementing your gender inclusive biology curriculum. But I’m wondering, have you heard from educators elsewhere in the United States, or just elsewhere in general, about negative pushback?

Sam 15:53
Yeah, I’ve heard from educators, what comes to mind is like on Facebook groups, and other discussions, teacher Facebook groups, it’s becoming, I think, pretty common to see on one of these, like LGBTQ teacher groups, folks will talk, talk about being asked to take down a pride flag or some other symbol. And then specifically, when it comes to curriculum, there are teachers that are teaching about gender and sexuality in all subjects now. I know that there are some states, mostly these are states in the south, that have no promo homo laws…

Charles and Tessa 16:32
[noises of disapproval]

Sam 16:32
and that would be a lot of you can’t teach, you can’t talk actually, about issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. And so for them, it would be strictly illegal for them to teach about, like how trans and intersex people relate to biology, right? They might be doing it, but it’s a different environment.

Charles 16:52
It’s so nonsensical… because that’s also interesting, one thing that is fascinating to me, and is a fairly American phenomenon of, a religious right which is simultaneously very anti-biology – doesn’t accept evolution, doesn’t really trust scientists – but at the same time, do want to invest in biological gender essentialism, and use that to justify other bigotries. I mean, I would be annoyed either way, but you, the least you could do is just be consistent. When I was younger, I read a book, which was like very evangelical, which was about like, essentially how to have relationships as a Christian. And it was like, you know, complementarianism – men are like this, women are like this – and what was so unbelievable, was… all of it, but in particular, one of the early chapters invested very heavily in this really reductive evo psych, “women were gatherers, and men were hunters, and therefore were like this.” And it’s like, you… bro – you don’t believe in evolution!

Sam 17:58
I was about to say, you know, c’mon guys, this isn’t even something you’re supposed to admit exists.

Charles 18:06
Nonsensical. And then it’s also like, if you believe in complementarianism, then you believe that God created … men and women to be different, so you don’t need to invest in this hunters and gatherers dichotomy anyway. Just have… bring some academic rigor, please! To top off sort of what I wanted to ask about, is there anything that you would like to talk about that you don’t usually get an opportunity to bring up?

Unknown Speaker 18:33
One thing on my mind is, with the pandemic, it’s raised everybody’s awareness that, that we need teachers, and that there is a shortage of people that are willing to be teachers. And also, even since before the pandemic, there has been a growing conversation about the need for more diverse teachers, and why, I see my place in that conversation. One of a trans educator and also an educator of color. I, the shortest way I can represent myself is as a Chinese American Canadian trans man, I guess. And then a part of that growing recognition that that educators are perhaps more valuable than they’ve been treated, as professionals… there needs to be a change in the perceived role of educators.

Sam 19:33
I am teaching my sixth year now and have had a lot of really hard years teaching and I wouldn’t still be teaching if I hadn’t, kind of found this niche and had opportunities to develop gender inclusive biology curriculum, or to advocate for trans educator protections. Those are not just extras on the side of teaching my classes in my schedule each day, but those are essential parts of what it means to be a teacher and to have a meaningful career. Because if I were to just teach my curriculum every year and teach the same curriculum every year, just tweak it a little bit without really any driving purpose, well, I feel that would be a much less fulfilling life in education. What’s expected still, in most of our retirement plans and salary plans, is that we are teaching in the same communities for decades and then retiring.

And so I have become a bigger advocate for recruiting and retaining diverse teachers and for encouraging teachers to engage in professional activities like this. It takes a lot of time, we are kind of heavily loaded with responsibilities in the first place, but this is… developing curriculum is something that I would never turn down a chance to do, because that drives the profession of teaching, developing new ideas and sharing them with other teachers. And to be able to share ideas about gender inclusive biology has been very rewarding, because, as you say, Charles, it like, it’s something that has – that can be taught and has existed, but like when you said you found the website, I was really glad that you found it. It’s something that wasn’t often talked about, and now we’re talking about it more, and it’s doing a great service for our students.

Charles 21:22
Yeah. Well, I would also say, to touch on something that you just said that I find interesting and encouraging. There’s sort of a cliche that, given the academic job landscape, a common refrain is to encourage people to just go into teaching. And then a common counter refrain, I think often is that people are sometimes reluctant to go into teaching because they don’t want to give up the opportunity to continue generating and developing ideas. And so unto your statement on developing curriculum, I think is an expansion of the experience of being a scientist. It’s a different form of creative work, but it taps into a lot of those same skill sets and sort of motivating factors as developing research.

Sam 22:12
Yeah, it is similar to research. There are, there’s journals and grants to apply for and everything. When you are teaching, you can teach every year, and not really develop anything new, really. I think when you was sharing that it made me remember that the origins of teaching in this country, where it’s something that married women can do or something like that, and that there’s more meaning in that is a little bit new. There definitely needs to be… we need to continue with teaching as a profession, where there is research and development of new techniques, because the techniques that exist now are not serving all of our students, for sure.

Charles 23:04
So are you generally hopeful about the way that teaching is going here? Or do you… if somebody were thinking about getting into teaching, but they were maybe hesitant about it because they were trans, or because they were worried about classroom management, or because they see how everything is on fire in the country – would you still encourage people to look into it?

Sam 23:25
I generally tell people that they’re going to want to understand how it is different and how it is similar to non-teaching jobs. So I guess there’s no clear comparison but I generally want people to know that teaching is as dynamic and unpredictable as any other career and also that it’s very rewarding in that you are, you’re literally forming young people and guiding them toward their adult lives and who they’re going to be. Despite the instability, because of low funding because of plans surrounding the pandemic return to school, teaching is still… I mean, it’s a stable career in that there will always be a need for teachers, and today, even somebody who is just entering teaching right now, just starting a program or starting their first year, they are valuable, and they are valued, perhaps more than they know. When it’s early September, and the teaching position hasn’t been filled – here in Colorado, school has been going on for a couple weeks now – teachers are extremely valuable. And sometimes they don’t know that when they go to interviews or are negotiating their position or salary. And they should know that that they are even if they don’t have much experience,

Charles 24:47
I think the only other thing that we plan to talk about was, for lack of a better phrase, the astronauts stuff, which I will leave up to Tessa.

Sam 24:56
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. Now, full disclosure, I am on the board of advisors about Out Astronaut, but that’s mostly a ceremonial position. So I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about, you know, what the program is, your experience with it, and, you know, what you hope to get out of it?

Yeah, well, last year, last summer, I was contestant in the first Out Astronaut contest. And this is it involves like a video proposal, experimental proposal, and interviews to identify people in the LGBTQ community that would become representatives, as out astronauts.

Yeah, I should note, for those of you who aren’t aware, which probably isn’t too likely on this channel, we have never in history of our species had someone who is an out LGBT member fly on a space mission. We’ve had people who came out afterwards, but no one actually in space, who at the same time was publicly out.

Yeah, and I think that is quite telling, right, that… sometimes I’ll say that, like, education is a very cisheteronormative. industry. But we see that in astronauts as well, that when they have been out, it’s clear that they’ve deliberately chosen not to be out during part or all of their careers. So I was interested in that. I, my life story is that I was interested in space as a child and then didn’t think about it very much, until a couple years into teaching. And I was I felt like I was coming out of a bunch of rings of fire, because I guess I think of my adolescence and early adulthood as this like struggle to transition and make that all work out, and then I think of the years after that is this massive struggle to become an effective teacher and to survive those first few years.

And then I was finally in a place where I felt like I had good command of both of those things. I felt pretty competent as a teacher, and I finished my transition and felt okay with that. On Reddit, there was a post on the teacher subreddit where somebody said, hey, do you know that the FBI will take teaching experiences as qualifying experience to work for the FBI? And somebody commented, saying, it’s the same for NASA. And I thought that was really cool. And then I decided that that might be my next… I guess, my next quest, my next thing that I want to do in my life, and when I thought about that, and I thought, well, maybe it’s possible, I just have to, like, learn a lot and make some plans and take some number of years, I was really glad that I could consider that even possible for myself. Because I know that I wouldn’t have said that, I wouldn’t have said, “I want to be an astronaut,” at any other year in my life, because of like a lack of confidence and stability.

And so, I, when I heard about the Out Astronaut contest, that was very exciting. And so the, I guess the the plan of the contest at the time last year was that they would have this social media competition and do interviews, and then somebody will be selected to, to go to their… I can’t remember exactly what it’s called, like, training Institute in the fall, and I learned a lot going through the process of being in the social media contest and designing the experiment. And my students were very excited. I think it was cool to them to know of a teacher who had really, really cool plans outside of being a teacher as their full time job as well. And so they all voted for me and everything. And I wasn’t selected for the, as the winner of that contest, but I was one of the finalists. And so that was really cool and an honor to be a part of that. I’ve been thinking like, as my continued… as my life goes on, and there’s so much uncertainty, where I go with that. And I don’t have like a clear answer for you right now, but I still hope and plan to be an astronaut. And with the changes in education I have, there have been times where I thought, well, maybe this would be a good time to pivot and to not teach full time because that would give me a greater ability to do other things that would help me be a better astronaut candidate. I don’t have anything concrete on that right now.

I’ve heard learning Russian is a good idea.

Oh, yeah, that’s a for sure. I thought so too. And I [garbled]

Charles 29:58
Oh yeah, learning Russian is simple. Knock it out in an afternoon, it’s very straightforward. Same writing system as English easy.

Sam 30:10
I was fascinated how the writing system is different. And then when I like, I guess internalized all the letters, I thought this is cool. I can read anything in Russian. I just don’t know what it means.

Charles 30:20
Yeah. I just… my reaction to all this astronauts stuff, and I’ve Tessa this before and I’ll call her it again, Tessa is a space freak. And I don’t understand it. I’m very afraid of space. And I like being here on terra firma.

Sam 30:38
So now that I resemble that remark. Um, so, Sam, did you apply during the last round of applications this past spring?

This past spring? No.

Tessa 30:50

Charles 30:52
If your window breaks on Earth, you’re fine. If your window breaks in space, you are dead, is my whole thing.

Sam 31:02
Don’t have a lot of windows, easy fix.

Charles 31:06
Anything can happen in space and it will. I’ve seen movies. I know what goes up… what goes down up there. And it’s very dangerous. I don’t know that I have any other potential particular questions other than if you just have any especially exciting or spicy science facts that you want to share with the audience?

Sam 31:30
Science facts? Yeah, I’d like to share something that a student of mine in chemistry shared a couple of weeks ago, this is on the first day of class of this completely took me by surprise. But a student asked isn’t all solar power, technically nuclear power, because it’s made from nuclear reactions in the sun?

Charles 31:51
That’ll really twist your noodle.

Sam 31:52
Is solar power nuclear power?

Charles 31:55
I would as a very pedantic and annoying philosophy of biology student, I would respond, that maybe spiritually, they’re the same but functionally, it is more useful to draw a distinction between solar and other nuclear power.

Sam 32:15
But Charles, consider if we, using the context that Sam mentioned, this means that all plants are nuclear powered.

I like that.

Charles 32:25
Yes. And then I would maintain my ground and then everyone would boo me as if in a clearly fake online post. And I would be appropriately shamed, but I would not back down.

Sam 32:39
I admit, I admire your integrity.

Charles 32:43
Thank you so much. [clearly sarcastic] IT got me a lot of friends when I was in high school. I… yeah. So Sam, and has been a real pleasure, it’s been such an exciting thing having you on, literally, Tessa may not remember this. I was gonna say, Tessa can back me up but I don’t know if she remembers, it wasn’t that impactful of a conversation. But when we were first talking about guests that we would like to have on I immediately mentioned you…

Sam 33:08
Oh yeah, I remember.

Charles 33:10
Yes, absolutely. I truly, very impressed by and encouraged by the gender inclusive biology curriculum project. It gives me… I mean, not to be sappy about it, but it gives me a lot of hope, and excitement for students who are going through school now, and students who will go through school and come in here, it’s that there is more and more and infrastructure for them, to learn about natural diversity and to learn about – and how to contextualize themselves in the natural world, without biology being sort of the exclusive terrain of being a transphobic cudgel but instead of being a positive affirmation.

Sam 33:59
I like the way you put it, yeah, not being a transphobic cudgel. I think that’s a great statement there. And I’m really happy to have been on the show. I’ve enjoyed this conversation a lot. Thank you for having me, Charles and Tessa.

Charles 34:14
If you ever want to come back and just talk about some scientific topic we will always have you.

Tessa 34:21
Yes. We will be delighted to have you again.

Sam 34:23
That’s great. Thank you. I can’t talk about science to a lot of my like non scientist or science teacher friends, so that’s awesome.

Charles 34:32
It’s why we’re, why we’re here. Okay, great. So if Sam if people want to find you online, where should they look?

Sam 34:39
If people want to find me online, you can go to sam-long.weebly.com or genderinclusivebiology.com. And on Twitter my username is @samlong713.

Charles 34:53
Fantastic. I am on Twitter @cockroacharles, and Tessa?

Tessa 34:58
I’m on Twitter @spacermase.

Charles 35:04
The show is on Twitter @ASABpod or at our website, asabpodcast.com, where you can find the show notes for all of our episodes, and very exciting our first week of trying a real sign off instead of just telling people to catch them on the flip side.

Sam 35:23
Yep. So until next time, keep on sciencing.

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