Skip to main content


Teaching Social Justice in the Science Classroom

Exploring the Respiratory System and Climate Change

As the world witnesses the many impacts of climate change, an often-overlooked consequence is the increase in diseases and their severity. Historically, diseases and climate change disproportionately impact those in marginalized communities (Campbell and Lee 2021; Islam and Winkel 2017; Martin-Howard and Farmbry 2020). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC 2021) show how air pollution, allergens, diseases carried by vectors, waterborne diseases, floods, and extreme temperatures, among other factors, connect to climate change. Science lessons about such topics often lack attention to equity and social justice, but the overlap of disease, climate change, and inequitable impact presents teachers with a great opportunity to connect these dots for many students. COVID provided me with multiple opportunities to do so.

The pandemic brought a common disease into everyone’s lives. Interest in this disease and others, such as asthma, has been high, and as a teacher, I want to capitalize on that interest. In particular, I was interested in helping students to link a trifecta of ideas–disease, social justice, and climate change–together. In the following lesson, students learn how climate change affects asthma rates and how marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by these phenomena. My hope is to add to the limited, but growing, body of examples of teaching science for social justice and equity (Bang et al. 2017; Emdin 2011; Morales-Doyle 2017).


I taught this lesson–which spanned several days–in a high school anatomy class, and based it on the NGSS standard HS-LS1-2, during the second semester of the school year. Throughout the year, the class used public health and social justice data to explore equity in science and medicine. The main goal was for students to observe connections between science principles (the structure and function of the respiratory system) and social issues, specifically the effects of climate change on human health.

I also wanted them to consider possible solutions. This activity built on students’ knowledge of the cardiovascular system, some basic knowledge of other body systems, and some background on climate change and its causes. The lesson was designed so that minimal resources (newsprint, markers, and internet access) would be needed.

Part 1

To start, students were presented with public health data about asthma, air pollution, and local climate change. Their task was to educate the local community about this health issue and to raise awareness and propose possible solutions to areas that are most affected. Among the materials I gave them were color copies of graphs, maps, and data from the CDC, the Department of Public Health, and Learning for Justice (see Online Connections).

Working in small groups, they examined the data and were asked, “What do you notice and wonder about the data? What patterns do you see in the data?” Sometimes students have trouble understanding graphs or data; taking the time to talk through what students observe about each graph, and how that is related to potential interpretations, can help. Students can then come up with questions about the data; a driving question board can be developed from student questions to drive student learning. These questions could then be put into categories to help organize their research. Students described patterns of higher incidences of asthma, air pollution, and point source pollution in marginalized communities. This allowed the class to ask probing questions, such as “Why is this happening here? Why are certain groups of people more likely to have asthma? What happens to the body when someone has asthma? Why is it happening so much more now?”

To foster connections to other disciplines, I asked students to consider the data historically. Specifically, they researched what policies may have led to the patterns they observed and found connections among marginalized communities, asthma rates, and the practice of redlining. The students noted the long-term effects of redlining on community health, as those affected were twice as likely to visit emergency rooms for asthma. This helps students learn more about the history of communities and the interactions of poverty with disease.

Depending on what students find in their research, discussions can also include considering how technology in medicine has affected marginalized communities. Some examples include the history of the spirometer and pulse oximeters—these devices were designed and tested on white people but found to give different readings for other races (Waight et al. 2022). Had the initial testing included other races, simple calibrations would have made these devices helpful diagnostic tools for all people instead of accurate only for white people. In discussions, students also bring in personal stories about these issues.

Part 2

After students researched their questions related to social justice topics, they worked to learn about what happens to the body during an asthma attack. Students, in groups of three or four, were asked to discuss what they think happens during an asthma attack and to draw a model of their initial ideas and what they already knew about the respiratory system on a large piece of newsprint. For English learner (EL) students, you can also provide a photo or a video of an asthma attack.

Because students had completed a unit on the cardiovascular system, I also asked them to add the heart to the model and ponder how they thought the heart was connected to the lungs. Students were able to draw the parts of the heart and remembered that the pulmonary arteries and veins connected to the lungs, but they were not sure how the organs were connected. Students then completed a gallery walk to share their models and leave sticky notes on each model with a compliment and two questions they had. Students then used those questions to help with their research.

Part 3

After students created their initial models, I provided them with resources to begin their research into details of how the respiratory system functions and what happens to the body during an asthma attack. From the initial materials and diagrams I provided, students examined internet sources related to the structures of the respiratory system and added missing parts to their initial diagram. To guide their research, I provided them with a list of structures to incorporate into their models (see Online Connections). Photos of these structures could also be given to EL students to match with the vocabulary.

This was intended to help students deepen their understanding of the parts of this body system, how gas exchange occurs in the cell membranes of the simple squamous epithelial tissues in the capillaries, and how oxygenated blood connects back to the heart to be pumped by the cardiac tissue to the body. Students researched these and their functions to incorporate them into their models.

At this point, students struggled with how the exchange of gases actually occurs in the blood. I asked some probing questions (“When blood enters the lungs what do you notice about the gasses there? What process happens if there is a high concentration of a gas in or outside of cells?”) that I hoped would help students examine how the structures in their models related to their functions. Through my probing, groups were able to talk through this problem and share with other groups that were struggling.

The next day, students participated in a sheep pluck dissection (this can also be done virtually or skipped altogether) so that they could compare an actual heart, lungs, and trachea with the model they had drawn on their newsprint. If the dissection is done, dissection safety protocols need to be followed, such as: wearing goggles, wearing nitrile gloves, and following all dissection protocols. Students were able to see the connection of the heart to the lungs, where previously they had trouble understanding how the pulmonary arteries and veins connected to the lungs and how these two systems work together.

Part 4

After the dissection, students altered their models by adding the connections of the heart to the lungs. Students returned to their models to explain the process of breathing to other students in their groups. I visited each group and probed students on how the process works, including how it helps the body maintain homeostasis. Building on prior knowledge, questions about other body systems that are involved in the process of breathing and maintaining homeostasis were also relevant: “What system controls breathing? Which system causes the chest to move up and down? How does the blood get to the lungs?” These kinds of questions can help students to make connections among systems beyond the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Students used their research about asthma and the risk factors of asthma to add a component to their model that illustrated how asthma caused a homeostatic imbalance and the systems of the body that are affected. At this point, a peer review of the models was done; each student was provided with sticky notes to add a compliment, a question, and something that needed more explanation. Students used this information from peers to revise their models further.

Part 5

The last component of the lesson was to examine the impact air pollution and climate change had on asthma from the data. Students used the questions they developed from the data to research how air pollution and climate change affect asthma rates. If students had trouble finding sources, articles could be provided to them (see Online Connections). In small group discussions, students learned about aspects of climate change that can affect asthma and added this layer to their models.

To make a final connection, students were asked the question, “With all our advances in medicine and treatment options, why are asthma rates increasing?” I also asked them to think about who climate change will affect the most and what we can do about it. Ideally, I want students to be knowledgeable and hopeful, so I asked them to examine their models to find ways that people could intervene socially, medically, environmentally, and politically by proposing some solutions. These questions were given to students to discuss in their groups and then in a whole–class discussion (see Online Connections).

Part 6

In groups, students updated their models with information to show patterns and connections from the data, research, and discussion. Figures 1 and 2 show examples of a completed model. Students then participated in a gallery walk. As they observed the various models, they provided peer feedback to solidify their understanding and further improve their own diagrams and models.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Final model example

Model example

Figure 2
Final model example

Model example

For an assessment, students were asked to use their models to educate the public about this health issue and provide some possible solutions. There were three options for students to pick from for a summative assessment: creating an infographic, presenting to the town, or writing a public health report. This can be differentiated by having students write responses or explain orally (or through a video) what they learned using their models.

The assessment was open-ended and was evaluated on the development and support of ideas, comprehension of the material, thoughtfulness, and students’ ability to explain the connections in the model (Model Based Inquiry Rubric was used). Students were able to explain how interacting systems allow for respiration and the process of breathing from molecules to cells, tissues, organs, and systems in the body. They related the model to their own lives and to the local community.

Students drew connections by explaining how point sources of pollution directly correlate to the high incidence of asthma in an area and how climate change is going to have a large impact on asthmatic communities in the future. Some students pointed out how the data could be used as an example of economic inequality and economic segregation and that people who are more privileged to live in suburban and wealthy areas are in less danger of this pollution and therefore climate change.


Philip and Azevedo (2017) and Rodriguez (2015) suggest four approaches for teaching equity in science (NASEM 2022):

  • Increasing the opportunity and access to high-quality science and engineering learning and instruction;
  • Emphasizing increased achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering;
  • Expanding what constitutes science and engineering; and
  • Seeing science and engineering as part of justice movements (pp. 69–70).

As science teachers align practices to the NGSS, lessons like this one provide ways to show students connections between science and social justice. Students applied their knowledge of the respiratory system to a disease that affects many students their age, and they made connections to other areas in science, other disciplines, and society.

Throughout this lesson, students were actively engaged in the topics, and by the end were able to make connections between disease, climate change, and social justice through the ongoing alteration of their models based on observations and research. By constantly revisiting models throughout the lesson, the models became useful tools for the students to layer their knowledge.

My hope is that they not only learned about asthma and the body but also learned about the utility of building models and layering on new layers of understanding over time. As children, we all learned to connect the dots to make a picture. As teachers, helping our students to connect the dots between science and social justice may help them to both understand the big picture and feel empowered to use science to change the world.

Online Connections

Respiratory system model assessment:

Asthma data maps:

Making connections—climate change addition to model:

Evidence-based explanations rubric:

Respiratory system model extensions:

Respiratory system model unit:

Web resources:

Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards:

Emily Lisy ( is a Ph.D. student in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT and also a science teacher at The Morgan School in Clinton, CT.


Bang, M., B.A. Brown, A. Calabrese Barton, A. Rosebery, and B. Warren. 2017. Toward more equitable learning in science: Expanding relationships among students, teachers, and science practices. In Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices, eds C. Schwarz, C. Passmore, & B.J. Reiser, pp. 33–58. Arlington, VA: NSTA.

Campbell, T., and O. Lee. 2021. What are the causes of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minority groups? Why is the CDC guidance for how to slow the spread of COVID-19 necessary but insufficient? National Science Teaching Association Daily Do.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2021, March 2. Climate effects on health.

Emdin, C. 2011. Citizenship and social justice in urban science education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 24 (3): 285–301.

Islam, N., and J. Winkel. 2017. Climate change and social inequality. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations.

Martin-Howard, S. and K. Farmbry, K. 2020. Framing a needed discourse on health disparities and social inequities: drawing lessons from a pandemic. Public Administration Review 80 (5): 839–844.

Morales-Doyle, D. 2017. Justice-centered science pedagogy: A catalyst for academic achievement and social transformation. Science Education 101 (6): 1034–1060.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Philip, T.M. and F.S. Azevedo. 2017. Everyday science learning and equity: Mapping the contested terrain. Science Education 101 (4): 526–532.

Rodriquez, A. 2015. What about a dimension of engagement, equity, and diversity practices? A critique of the Next Generation Science Standards. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 52 (7): 1031–1051.

Teaching Tolerance. 2018. Social Justice Standards: The Learning for Justice Anti-Bias Framework.

Waight, N., S. Kayumova, S., J. Tripp, et al. 2022. Towards equitable, social justice criticality: re-constructing the “black” box and making it transparent for the future of science and technology in science education. Science & Education 31: 1493–1515.

Biology Climate Change Disciplinary Core Ideas Equity Life Science Social Justice High School

Asset 2