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Justice-Centered Science Pedagogy: Leaning Beyond the Boundaries of Equity and Culturally Responsive Practices

By Jordyn Frost and Anastasia Sanchez

Posted on 2020-05-26

The adoption of NGSS and three-dimensional science instruction has led to a much-needed shift from decontextualized science learning to phenomena-based learning. Many science educators are centering science learning on real-world phenomena. I, Anastasia, find that justice-centered science pedagogy empowers teachers to make science learning more inclusive of authentic student experiences and aligns well with NGSS.

I am a Seattle Public Schools District science curriculum specialist and University of Washington graduate researcher leading district-wide efforts to create adapted K12 justice-centered science units through the district’s Social Focus Initiative. My colleague Jordyn Frost, one of eight case study teachers, has taken a leadership role in co-designing and teaching justice-centered seventh-grade Social Focus Initiative units.

Anastasia’s Context

As a middle school science teacher, I welcomed the authentic context for teaching and learning science; however, as I conducted my own action research, it was evident that without phenomena of consequential concern, students were still engaging in status quo, affirming “science for science’s sake” learning.

In response, my colleagues and I developed justice-centered, Social Focus middle school science units. The Social Focus Questions and the Social Focus evidence-collecting lessons provided me a way to ethically attend to student questions such as, “Why does this really matter?” and “Why does this matter to me?” They also enabled me to nurture students’ identities as change makers. These justice-centered learning activities are designed to be community-centered, promote critical consciousness, and be grounded in issues of consequence—generationally, culturally, and collectively.

An example of a unit that was adapted to be justice-centered using the Social Focus framework was our eighth-grade Earth, Moon, and Sun unit. The district curriculum had students investigating the fact that the Moon is not visible at all times. Our Social Focus question is How does tidal flooding affect the communities of Venice and Miami? Using this question, students have been able to enrich their learning with a real-world context as they grapple with the issues communities face due to tidal flooding and sea-level rise. Students complete daily Moon & Tide logs to learn about the phases of the Moon to determine days of greatest risk for tidal flooding to inform peer group strategic plans.

Students also collect evidence based on the work of Latina climate scientist Nicole Hernandez Hammer. Students were eager to learn about the impacts of climate change and the disparity of those impacts on affluent and under-resourced communities. When socioscientific learning is situated to promote cultural resurgence using examples of diverse scientists working to solve issues in their own neighborhoods, this fosters science identities for marginalized learners and critical consciousness for all. The authentic representation, in context, engaged learners of all backgrounds. Observing the development of collective stewardship was powerful to witness.

Justice-centered pedagogy serves all students, not just those from historically marginalized communities. I recall a white female student asking, “Why aren’t all teachers teaching us about justice? Isn’t it the same as lying to us white kids, causing us to think the world is one way, made for us, but not knowing better? No wonder we don’t get it; we weren’t taught to care.” Justice-centered instruction has the potential to instill social stewardship and productive empathy in students through self-awareness about how one’s identity and access to sociopolitical power informs social responsibilities for the future of our collective well-being.

Jordyn’s Context

As part of the Social Focus Initiative, I was responsible for piloting the geology unit. The district-mandated curriculum had students investigating the phenomena of two rocks found far apart, but made of the same material. This phenomenon had real-world context, but lacked relevance, limiting the potential of science learning by ignoring Indigenous knowledge systems of land-based science and ongoing land rights issues. To address this, the unit was given a Social Focus question based on the land rights of Bears Ears National Monument: What do we need to consider in determining the value of land?

Students learned how rock transforms by investigating the value of the land from the stance of a paleontologist, an anthropological perspective, a cultural perspective from Ute tribal members, a recreationalist lens, and economic as well as political standpoints based on the mining of uranium. Using knowledge of the stakeholders’ perspective from video primary sources, students discussed the connections among the varying viewpoints and how rock weathering processes increases the value of Bears Ears, as not all areas offer the same access to cultural artifacts, fossils, mining resources, or natural beauty. By considering the roles of multiple stakeholders’ angles on land rights and values of Bears Ears, they were able to understand the rock cycle with an authentic lens: that the rock cycle can impact lives.

My classroom’s ecosystem was stronger and evolved in a way that brought increased engagement and excitement around learning scientific concepts. I was no longer the keeper of knowledge, but rather a facilitator of learning and participant in rich and powerful critical conversations. Justice-centered learning lets students realize that they have the capability to make change within their community using science as their catalyst. Teaching enlivened content allowed me to grow my critical consciousness alongside my students, which is necessary in teaching today.

Final Thoughts

Our collective social climate and goals of advancing science and science pedagogy, as well as responsibly serving youth, means we must push beyond culturally responsive add-on methods and three-dimensional science instruction boundaries. This is possible if we embrace restorative, dignity-conferring justice-centered science pedagogy.

Jordyn Frost
Jordyn Frost
is a seventh-grade science teacher at Denny International Middle School in Seattle, Washington. With a background in informal science education, Frost took her enthusiasm from the stage to the classroom by earning a master’s degree in teaching from the University of Washington. This allowed her to combine her passion for science education and social justice. She has been teaching the NGSS and phenomena-based instruction for five years. Frost has worked on teams in the Seattle Public Schools District to modify curriculum to be justice-centered and support the adoption of NGSS-aligned science curriculum at the elementary and middle school levels.

Anastasia Sanchez
Anastasia Sanchez
has taught in the Seattle Public Schools District since 2005. She began in a middle school classroom as a seventh-grade science teacher, later becoming science department lead, instructional coach, and eighth-grade teacher. Sanchez served as the language acquisition specialist and Race and Equity Committee Lead. As a science content demonstration teacher, she was inspired to serve students and teachers on a larger scale, which she now does as science curriculum specialist for SPS. Sanchez has earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Northern Arizona University and a master’s degree in education. She is currently a doctoral student in the University of Washington’s College of Education’s Learning Science and Human Development Program.


Note: This article is featured in the May 2020 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

Equity NGSS Professional Learning old Three-Dimensional Learning Middle School

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