Aspirations of becoming a technology entrepreneur shifted for Niral Shah when, as a college student, he began working with students and community leaders in West Philadelphia.
The lack of access to educational opportunities that Shah encountered inspired him to change career tracks and, after time as a high school teacher in California, become a researcher with a focus on race and implicit bias in STEM education. Shah, who joins the University of Washington College of Education this fall as an assistant professor in learning, education and politics, collaborates with K-12 teachers to understand racial ideology and attenuate the impact of implicit bias.
Shah comes to the UW from Michigan State University and earned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Spencer Foundation and National Academy of Education.
In the following Q&A, Shah discusses his research agenda, an upcoming course he’ll be teaching and more.
What drew you to education?
I did not plan on becoming an educator. Many years ago, I was studying business and computer science with a goal of starting my own tech company. But while pursuing that education, I was also engaging with schools and community organizations in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of West Philadelphia. Although from a young age I had experienced anti-Asian racism, I realized that the structural racism at work there was of a different magnitude. It became obvious to me that not everyone was getting the same opportunities I had growing up in the Chicago suburbs.
These early experiences led me to pursue a career in teaching. I taught mathematics and served as department chair at a mostly Latinx high school in the Bay Area. I considered STEM education as one pathway to addressing racial wealth gaps. My experiences at that high school eventually informed my research agenda, as I became interested in understanding how race and racism play out on an everyday basis in classrooms.
Describe your research agenda. What makes this work meaningful to you?
My research is focused on racial ideology, and how it gets deployed in classroom interaction between teachers and students. To date, STEM education has been a key site for my research. I’ve studied how false racial narratives about STEM ability affect students’ participation in classrooms and position students as STEM learners and as human beings. I have also co-developed a classroom observation tool called EQUIP, which I’ve been using to support teachers in identifying implicit bias and attenuating its impact.
As a former K-12 teacher, it’s important to me that my research stays close to the everyday work of teaching and learning. Focusing on students’ racialized experiences and teachers’ implicit biases provides me a way to do that.
What attracted you to UW College of Education?
It’s an exciting time to join the College of Education. Building on its longstanding commitment to equity and justice, the College has been drawing amazing scholars doing cutting-edge work in these areas. That’s something I wanted to be a part of and also hopefully help shape.
What's a course you're particularly excited to teach?
In the spring I will teach a seminar called “Learning Racism, Learning Anti-racism.” The goal of the course is to bring learning theories in conversation with theories of racism and anti-racism, in order to answer the question: How do people actually learn racism, and how do they learn anti-racism? Through the course students will work collaboratively to design artifacts, experiences or interventions that have the potential to support people in taking up anti-racist ideas and practices.
Tell us about an education-related book or movie that has influenced you.
One book that has had a deep personal and professional influence on me is Vijay Prashad’s “The Karma of Brown Folk.” Reading it helped me to understand how being racialized as South Asian in the U.S. becomes implicated in anti-Black racism and other forms of racism. Not only did this spark my professional trajectory, but it turned out to be a profound personal insight.
What's something that students and colleagues should know about you?
As a colleague, I find inspiration in learning from other people’s work. I’m constantly curious to discover connections across seemingly disparate research agendas and paradigms that can make my own work better, as well as support the work of my colleagues. As a teacher, I believe in the fundamental brilliance of every human being. For students who take my classes, my goal is to organize my teaching to give every student a chance to show that brilliance.
Besides your work, what's something that you're passionate about?
I enjoy watching "Star Wars" with my 5-year-old daughter and trying to teach my 2-year-old son knock-knock jokes. When I’m not helping to raise two kids, I’m usually on the tennis court or thinking about U.S. politics.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications