David Upegui ‘21 was conducting public health research at Brown University and had every intention of pursuing his Ph.D. on the way to becoming a public health epidemiologist when something stopped him.
Shortly after he obtained his master’s degree, Upegui fathered a son born with Down syndrome, and began to question his singular focus on academia. In 2010, amid then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s efforts to remake failing schools—which resulted in the wide-scale firing of teachers in school districts across the country—he had a calling to return to his alma mater, Central Falls High School.
Upegui quotes Gandhi: “One has to speak out and stand up for one’s convictions. Inaction at a time of conflagration is inexcusable.”
A little over a decade later, the award-winning teacher has done just that. Upegui has not only earned a Ph.D.— fulfilling the promise he made to himself and his mentor at Brown not to let this mission-driven adventure derail his efforts to obtain his doctorate—but also co-authored a book—his first academic one—that could very well change the way we think about and teach high school biology.
The book, “Integrating Racial Justice Into Your High-School Biology Classroom: Using Evolution to Understand Diversity,” published by Routledge, educates teachers on how, at points in history, science has been used to reinforce racism and the relationship between the two. (The science is clear: there is only one human species and no genetically meaningful human subspecies.)
The book provides a prescription by which teachers can integrate the study of racial justice with evolutionary biology into existing high school biology curriculum using rigorous science education to help liberate and empower students.
“To understand why this is so powerful, you really have to know who David Upegui is and what he has done,” said URI professor emeritus and Upegui’s co-author David Fastovsky. “Here was a Latino whose mother kept her family alive by cleaning hotels, but who ultimately found his calling, and became as good at what he does, teaching science, as the very best in America.”
The son of immigrants who moved to the United States from Colombia when he was 10, Upegui valued academic achievement. While he had taught intermittently at the college level, the thought of leaving Brown to teach high school was unnerving. His mentor at Brown, the late Professor Tom Lasater, encouraged him to follow this path to which he was so strongly drawn. But they agreed he had a responsibility to himself, his family, and his community, to earn his Ph.D.—even if it was not in epidemiology.
‘Students have to learn to deal with the problems they will inherit’
In the fall of 2010, Upegui began teaching high school science at Central Falls High School. While the large classes and lack of resources typical of an urban school district may have been a challenge, he found no lack of talent or eagerness among his students. Early in his teaching career, Upegui helped a student successfully apply to Brown University’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, an eight-year combined bachelor’s-to-MD program. The excitement surrounding the young man’s acceptance into the program buoyed the entire community.
There were more acceptances of students to other highly respected colleges and universities. Yet, at the same time, there were students who felt discouraged from pursuing their ambitions because they believed they were inherently unable to achieve due to who they were and where they came from. While working to dispel this, Upegui also found himself teaching a course on evolutionary theory for practicing teachers at the University of Rhode Island.
It was at URI where Upegui met Fastovsky, a renowned paleontologist and professor of geosciences in URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences. After assessing Upegui’s knowledge of evolutionary theory, Fastovsky and the young teacher struck up a on-going conversation about how science needed to be taught. Eventually—and at Fastovsky’s urging—the two of them wrote a successful grant proposal to the Paleontological Society that would enable Upegui to acquire animal skulls for his Central Falls students to study.
“David asked me, ‘what’s one thing as a high school teacher you’ve always wanted to do, but couldn’t?’ And one of the things I’ve always wanted to do is have my students work with actual skulls, and for them to figure out based on the morphology how they evolved and what the connections are between different animals,” recalled Upegui. “So, we wrote the grant. And we got the grant—and we got the skulls. And I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, I mean, the skulls are just the beginning, but I need you.’”
Fastovsky began visiting Upegui’s high school classroom. “David is a brilliant human being; he is also very down to earth. When he came to Central Falls to speak to my students, he would speak to them in Spanish—and you could see their faces light up,” said Upegui. “He has this charisma about him. And I started noticing that something else was happening.”
His students were smart and talented but hesitant to reach too high.
“The goal of education should be about increasing students’ ability to make decisions that positively affect them and the people they care about—not just about content delivery,” Upegui said. “I feel very strongly that our students will have to learn to deal with the problems that they will sadly inherit—a hotter planet, an overpopulated planet, a planet full of political strife. “Under-educating any of the students I have in front of me doesn’t just rob them or their community, it robs humanity. Who is to say that in front of me right now, I don’t have the next Albert Einstein or Sonia Sotomayor?
And David understood that from the very beginning—so not only did he come with the content knowledge, but his visits were full of that demeanor and approach. He got it.”
“I feel very strongly that our students will have to learn to deal with the problems that they will sadly inherit—a hotter planet, an overpopulated planet, a planet full of political strife.”David Upegui ‘21
In 2015, Upegui began a joint URI/Rhode Island College doctoral program in education with URI’s Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Education and asked Fastovsky to be his major professor—even though Fastovsky was in a different college. Though not something that commonly happens at the graduate level, Fastovsky accepted and the two got to work. “He asked me to read a lot—both about evolution and about American history. We exchanged a lot of information.”
‘Incorporating social justice is a moral imperative’
Upegui shared his experience as a high school teacher in a cash-strapped, urban school district working with truly exceptional students who he felt had been conditioned to feel “less than” because of the color of their skin or the neighborhood in which they grew up. He felt strongly that evolutionary biology had a role to play in dispelling these myths and empowering students.
“I don’t know how else to put this,” Upegui said. “But learning about evolution and the fact that humans are one species, that we are all related to each other, that those phenotypical differences among people are not related to intelligence or capacity, is a way to take action against the social injustices of our world.”
If science is the answer, Upegui also points out that at periods in history it has been part of the problem—citing the work of scientists like Carolus Linnaeus or Louis Agassiz whose views on race have been largely disavowed by the scientific community.
Upegui notes that science requires interpretation—and is therefore susceptible to human error. Historically, he says, practitioners of racism have sought to root their political and social agendas in a scientific foundation. Teaching students about these transgressions motivates and sparks their inquisitiveness.
“I don't know how else to put this, but learning about evolution and the fact that humans are one species, that we are all related to each other, that those phenotypical differences among people are not related to intelligence or capacity, is a way to take action against the social injustices of our world.”David Upegui ‘21
At first, he and Fastovsky tried to incorporate these ideas into an editorial that they submitted to several science-education publications. “It was very enlightening and, regrettably, disappointing,” Fastovsky said. “The editors either couldn’t understand the message or watered it down so that it was no longer what we were trying to say!”
In talking with Fastovsky, Upegui decided on the subject for his dissertation—that incorporating social justice into the high school biology curriculum is not only effective in terms of inspiring and helping students to learn, it is a moral imperative.
‘The solution is education’
“The first part of the dissertation was like a manifesto,” said Fastovsky. “It was about how science has been oppressive at points in history—and why that oppressive science is not very good science. And, actually, good science—far from being oppressive—is liberating. And I said to him, ‘Forget about the dissertation, we’re writing a book.’”
While Upegui did finish the dissertation, the duo also forged ahead with the book, which included incorporating research interviews conducted as part of the dissertation with educators already integrating lessons on social justice into the high school biology classroom. The book builds on both the history and moral imperative as well as learnings from the research to develop a “how-to guide” for educators.
But why is a high school science class in evolutionary biology the appropriate place to teach social justice? For Upegui, whose students are primarily from minority communities and may be the sons and daughters of immigrants—or immigrants themselves—the answer is plain as day.
“Kids at this age are very smart and they’re very open. And what they are open to are solutions to some of the obvious problems they are encountering in life—but they aren’t so jaded yet as to believe there are no solutions. Upegui will tell you that the solution to the problem is education—and I think at some level that has to be right.”David Fastovsky
“Once students understand evolution and that we are all connected to everything on earth, that we all descend from a small stock of humans which arose in Africa, and that skin pigmentation patterns are related to UV radiation and have nothing to do with intelligence, building that understanding and knowing science is about empowerment,” he says. “And learning the scientific method—the idea of doing research and really thinking about it is useful in other places. So, it’s not just in the classroom that they are going to use this ability to discern and to organize their data. Engaging in evidence-based argument is going to be helpful no matter what.”
Fastovsky agreed. “One of the things we’ve learned in this, and that I’ve said for a long time, is that the critical thinking that’s required for doing science is the exact same critical thinking that is required for doing anything else. If you can get people to think about what they do, and why they do it—and get them to think critically—well maybe you just might come up with some solutions to currently intractable problems,” he said. “Kids at this age are very smart and they’re very open. And what they are open to are solutions to some of the obvious problems they are encountering in life—but they aren’t so jaded yet as to believe there are no solutions.
“David will tell you that the solution to the problem is education—and I think at some level that has to be right.”
“Integrating Racial Justice Into Your High-School Biology Classroom: Using Evolution to Understand Diversity” is designed as a practical manual for teaching, the chapters focus on teaching concepts of equity through evolutionary biology modules, a cornerstone for building students’ scientific understanding of biotic diversity. The book provides teachers with context on the historical relationship between science and racism for topics such as natural selection, social justice, and American slavery and colonization. It includes ready-to-use lesson plans and classroom exercises that can lead to students’ liberation and personal empowerment through science education.