Why Social Justice Matters in STEM Education
When I was a young student, I was taught that science is objective. In some ways it is. Even though the language educators use to describe the process of science has changed—from scientific method to inquiry to science and engineering practices—the basic principles behind what it means to do science have stood the test of time.
For most of my formal education, I didn’t much think about who actually was responsible for the scientific advances I was learning about, nor what was going on in the world at the time those advances were happening. It wasn’t until later that I began to truly appreciate what science as a human endeavor means. Fortunately, today’s students have opportunities to explore the interactions between science and society much earlier in their educational careers.
Appendix H of the Next Generation Science Standards provides some guidance regarding what students should understand about the nature of science by the time they finish high school. There are social justice issues embedded in these understandings, but they aren’t necessarily explicit.
Take this understanding, for example:
“Scientists’ backgrounds, theoretical commitments, and fields of endeavor influence the nature of their findings.”
This tells us that who does science matters. The scientific questions that ultimately get answered depend on who asks them, who funds research, and who decides how to use the findings. Scientists’ lived experiences, their values and beliefs, and the goings-on in the world around them influence the science that gets done. Who is not doing science also matters. If whole groups of people are underrepresented in STEM—and we know this to be true—then a wealth of experiences, values, identities, and perspectives are not contributing to advances in STEM and the impacts these advances have on our lives.
Two more of these NGSS understandings have social justice implications as well:
“Science and engineering are influenced by society, and society is influenced by science and engineering.”
“Many decisions are not made using science alone, but rely on social and cultural contexts to resolve issues.”
So, it is more than who does science that matters; how science is used is also of critical importance. Students must have opportunities to examine the social and cultural context in which science exists. Failure to have these experiences makes learning science purely theoretical, and perhaps to some uninteresting. What if all students had experiences that grounded STEM learning in the social and cultural contexts in which they live, and engaged them in using STEM to truly improve quality of life or make the world a better place?
Many of the articles you’ll read in Connected Science Learning over the next two months share evidence that involving students in STEM learning and problem solving connected to real, important issues is an effective strategy for broadening participation. Giving young people the chance to have an impact on how science is used while they are still in school may very well make a difference for who does STEM in the future.
Beth Murphy, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org), is field editor for Connected Science Learning and an independent STEM education consultant with expertise in fostering collaboration between organizations and schools, providing professional learning experiences for educators, and implementing program evaluation that supports practitioners to do their best work.