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Future Approaches in STEM Education

By Okhee Lee, New York University; Tricia Shelton, NSTA; Scott Grapin, University of Miami

Posted on 2022-12-21

Pressing societal challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, have further exposed injustices disproportionately impacting minoritized groups. In K-12 classrooms, unprecedented societal challenges disproportionately impacting minoritized groups present an unprecedented opportunity to center justice in STEM education and society broadly.

The previous generation of science standards was based on the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council 1996). Contemporary approaches, based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), “flip” traditional approaches (Lee, Shelton, & Soriano 2022; Building on and extending contemporary approaches, we propose justice-centered STEM education as one example of a future approach that addresses pressing societal challenges while centering justice.

Science Instructional Shifts Image

Shifts from Science to Equity to Justice

Science was at the center of traditional approaches in science education. Students were viewed as receivers of science knowledge defined by scientists and science educators. Science learning involved accumulation of discrete elements of science knowledge (i.e., what knowledge is; knowledge-as-given). Canonical science knowledge was typically presented through science textbooks, meaning that literacy skills (reading and writing) were a precursor or prerequisite to learning science. Canonical science knowledge was confirmed by school science lab investigations, while real-world examples were used as a hook or application to help students acquire science knowledge as the primary goal of science learning.

Equity is at the center of contemporary approaches in science and engineering education. All students are expected to engage in science and engineering to make sense of phenomena and problems as scientists and engineers do in their professional work. To promote sense-making with all students, phenomena and problems are selected to be compelling to all students, especially those who may not see science and engineering as relevant to their daily lives or future careers. In particular, local phenomena and problems rooted in students’ cultural and linguistic experiences promote both equity and science and engineering learning (Lee 2020;

Justice is at the center of future approaches in STEM education. Students examine how minoritized groups are disproportionately impacted by pressing societal challenges, how solutions privilege some groups over others, and how solutions informed by STEM disciplines can widen disparities. Solutions that focus narrowly on “following the science” are necessary but not sufficient, as they overlook minoritized groups and widen injustices (Grapin, Dudek, & Lee in press; As students design solutions that center the experiences and knowledge of minoritized groups, they learn that justice-centered solutions reduce injustices while also addressing the needs of society at large.

Shifts from Student Interest to Agency to Advocacy

Student interest was at the center of traditional approaches in science education. A small portion of students (or “a select few”) came to understand and appreciate how science knowledge was connected to form science disciplines—an understanding that was essential to move on to science careers. This small portion of students was and continues to be mostly White male students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds (Mensah 2019). However, science did not make sense to many students who did not come to see it as relevant to their daily lives or future careers.

Student agency is at the center of contemporary approaches in science and engineering education. Students take on the agentive roles of scientists and engineers as they engage in science and engineering to make sense of phenomena in science and design solutions to problems in engineering (i.e., what knowledge does; knowledge-in-use). Students’ own questions about phenomena and problems drive their learning. To make sense of phenomena and problems, students engage in three-dimensional learning by blending science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas in science and engineering. Over time, students develop their understanding of science and engineering coherently.

Student advocacy is at the center of future approaches in STEM education. As students make sense of pressing societal challenges, they are better equipped to make informed decisions about these challenges and take responsible actions. As pressing societal challenges demand solutions, students put their STEM learning into action by advocating for minoritized groups disproportionately impacted by these challenges (i.e., what knowledge does for a more just society; knowledge for action that promotes justice).


Moving beyond traditional approaches, contemporary approaches in science education aim for “all standards, all students” (NGSS Lead States 2013). The ability to explain phenomena in science and design solutions to problems in engineering is essential for all students to navigate their daily lives and future careers. Contemporary approaches respect the diversity of students’ experiences, recognize the merit of students’ ideas, and promote the inclusion of all students in science and engineering. In this way, contemporary approaches provide the crucial foundation for future approaches to address pressing societal challenges while centering justice. The evolution from contemporary to future approaches will have implications across multiple facets of K-12 STEM education, including classroom practices, teacher education, teacher professional learning, and education policy. Building on and extending the Framework and the NGSS, the STEM education community should capitalize on this opportunity to contribute to solving societal challenges that K-12 students currently face and will likely face in the future.


Grapin, S. E., S. Dudek, and O. Lee. in press. Justice-centered STEM education with multilingual learners: Computational modeling to explain and design solutions to COVID-19 disparities. Science Scope.

National Research Council. 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. 2012. A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Lee, O. 2020. Making everyday phenomena phenomenal: Using phenomena to promote equity in science instruction: Science and Children 58 (1), 5661.

Lee, O., T. Shelton, and K. Soriano. 2022, June 17. Contemporary approaches in science education with all students. National Science Teaching Association.

Mensah, F. M. 2019. Finding voice and passion: Critical race theory methodology in science teacher education. American Educational Research Journal 56 (4), 1412–1456.

Next Generation Science Standards Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Appendix D–All standards, all students: Making the NGSS accessible to all students. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Equity Inclusion NGSS Science and Engineering Practices STEM

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