By Bill Penuel
On a Friday afternoon, at the end of the school week, a group of teens meet to learn about pollution sources in their neighborhood. For them, unpleasant smells and poor air quality are a daily experience, and they are committed to doing something about it. They study air quality reports, read newspaper articles, and learn about what the city is—and is not—doing to improve the quality of the air they breathe. They learn about solutions that local refineries could use to reduce pollution, and make plans to advocate for these solutions within their neighborhoods and to elected officials.
For these students, science and engineering aren’t just subjects they encounter in school. Rather, they are an essential part of larger initiatives to promote environmental justice in their communities. As they develop their understanding of the science of pollution, these young people also develop knowledge that will help them speak compellingly to public officials. As they engage in research focused on the priorities of the people in their community, young people embrace engineering design at its best: a set of practices for identifying and solving problems that can help people live better lives together and in good relationship with the planet.
These teens’ activities are part of a larger project, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, to promote equity in science education across a large urban school district. The project is an initiative of the inquiryHub research-practice partnership, which has been investigating different strategies for promoting inclusive, equitable, student-centered teaching in the district for 13 years. Core partners include Denver Public Schools, the University of Colorado, and community organizations like Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Creating Equity), which co-designed the program described earlier.
A fundamental strategy of the partnership is to ensure students experience science and engineering instruction in class that is coherent from their point of view, relevant to them personally and to their communities, and in which their ideas matter to the ongoing classroom activity. This kind of science and engineering instruction centers on phenomena that relate to students’ interests, and supports engineering design challenges that address community priorities. In supporting this kind of instruction, we seek to prepare students for a science that sometimes is and should always be an inclusive culture of building knowledge that supports the thriving and sustainability of human communities.
Creating better experiences for students who face discrimination both in and outside the classroom, and who are not used to having their questions and ideas take center stage in a classroom, is not easy. We have to be willing to live with the recognition that addressing discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, and language is long-term work, and can’t be accomplished in a single class. We also have to focus on aspects of learning that science educators typically don’t put front and center: students’ interests and identities.
We also have to acknowledge that in many students’ communities, science and engineering have caused harm. Science has been used to justify white supremacy and the exclusion of girls, women, and gender nonconforming people from educational and work opportunities. Engineering knowledge has been used to split up neighborhoods with highways in the name of progress and remove mountaintops to bring energy to faraway cities. Equity demands we ask of ourselves, our students, their families, and communities, “What we do want science and engineering to be for?”
A science education that works toward justice in communities does not prepare students for how science and engineering are today, but for what they could be. The students from Project VOYCE aren’t just doing science as it is done today. The ways they are collaborating with one another embody ideals of knowledge-building that aren’t always realized in the academic or commercial worlds. The ends they are working toward are only partly represented in science and engineering today.
Megan Bang, a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who reimagines a science education focused on fostering more ethical relationships among people and the planet, reminds us that science education needs to be focused on helping students imagine new possibilities for living and for science. I believe promoting equity and justice in science education demands it, and our ability to thrive together in a changing climate depends on those new ideas.
Bill Penuel is a professor of learning sciences and human development in the Institute of Cognitive Science and School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is a leader in the inquiryHub research-practice partnership, which has developed a wide range of curriculum materials, assessments, and professional development resources to support equitable implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards, which are accessible at https://bit.ly/2QSaIsN.