Collaborative Research: A qualitative inquiry into sex/gender narratives in undergraduate biology and their impacts on transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project examines how a more accurate curriculum about the diversity of sexes found across species, the role of the environment in sex determination, and the complex relationship between sex and gender can create a more inclusive environment for transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming (TNG) students in undergraduate biology courses. Research indicates that rather than emphasizing the diversity of strategies and experiences that organisms have around sex, gender, and orientation, biology courses often inaccurately categorize sex and gender as binary. The oversimplification of sex and gender into binary categories can make biology classrooms particularly challenging for TNG students. Early data suggest that how sex and gender topics are represented in the biology curriculum impacts TNG students’ sense of belonging and interest in biology. Understanding TNG students’ experiences with biology content will support the design of interventions and curriculum inclusive of both TNG and intersex students. This project will also help all biology students develop inclusive and scientifically accurate understandings of sex and gender. Finally, this work will positively impact the career competencies of all biology majors who will need skills and knowledge to work with diverse patients, stakeholders, and teams.

Guided by master narrative theory, the goals of this project are to: 1) explore how sex and gender are currently represented in the undergraduate biology content, 2) describe the impact this content has on classroom climate and belonging for TNG students, and 3) characterize the current efforts of biology instructors to create a more inclusive climate for TNG students. Master narrative theory deciphers how messages in the cultural environment become internalized and impact the development of personal identity. The sample will include TNG students with diverse racial/ethnic and social identities along with biology instructors recruited from a variety of institutions. Data collected will include participant interviews (recorded and transcribed), participant baseline demographic surveys, course observations (e.g., video recordings), and course artifacts (e.g., lesson plan, assessment questions). Feminist phenomenology, qualitative content analysis, and document analysis will be used to analyze the data. The anticipated outcomes of this project include (a) identifying aspects of biology content that could influence the sense of belonging of TNG students and impact the career competency of all biology majors, (b) describing factors that can help or hinder instructors as they try to create more inclusive and accurate biology curricula related to sex and gender, and (c) creating professional development materials to support instructors who design lessons around biology topics related to sex and gender.

This project is supported by NSF's EHR Core Research (ECR) program. The ECR program emphasizes fundamental STEM education research that generates foundational knowledge in the field. Investments are made in critical areas that are essential, broad and enduring: STEM learning and STEM learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development. The program supports the accumulation of robust evidence to inform efforts to understand, build theory to explain, and suggest intervention and innovations to address persistent.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Layman's description

Gender inequities have been regularly identified in biology education; however, students whose identities do not fit into the inaccurate gender binary have oft been overlooked in studies of gender inequity in biology. A key cause of these inequities is the concept of gender essentialism, the belief that genders, and gender roles, are natural, biologically derived categories: that there is a “natural essence” of femaleness or maleness influencing behaviors and proficiencies. Gender essentialism can impact students of all genders in variety of ways including 1) promoting stereotypes of all genders especially of women, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students, 2) inhibiting students from accurately learning biology concepts, and 3) disregarding the lived experiences of gender diverse students. In collaboration with Dr. Aramati Casper at University of Colorado- Boulder and Dr. Sarah Eddy at Florida International University, we are investigating how gender diverse students experience biology content focused on sex and gender, how faculty teach sex and gender, and what factors co-vary with faculty understanding of the required nuance to accurately teach sex and gender.
Effective start/end date9/1/228/31/25


  • gender
  • biology
  • narrative
  • student
  • faculty


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