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Curriculum Planning

Weaving Social Justice Into Science Instruction

Shedding light on inequity in science fields bolsters students’ critical thinking skills and sense of self-efficacy in science. A free curriculum helps teachers get started.

January 22, 2021
Science teacher talks to high school class
monkeybusinessimages / iStock

As teaching for social justice becomes more common, few resources exist for science teachers. But infusing our instruction with social justice is very much a part of our job. Not only does diversifying the scientific workforce strengthen science, but the ways in which the culture of science has historically excluded certain identities (and continues to do so) are a problem that science teachers are uniquely positioned to fix.

Whenever we teach, we are making choices as to what to include and what to omit. As science teachers, therefore, we must either actively work to include identity, equity, and justice in our teaching or admit that we are choosing to leave them out.

In the words of theologian Richard Shaull, from his foreword to Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “There is no such thing as a ​neutral ​educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

But how are science teachers to do this? Very few of us have been trained to consider the human side of our field, so most traditional presentations of our discipline either don’t mention the people behind the science or emphasize the same white, male heroes. We go into our classrooms believing that all students can learn and fall in love with science, but our traditional approaches are both inaccurate and harmful to many of our students and our goals as teachers.

One answer lies in teaching students to apply critical thinking and scientific methods to the field of science itself—particularly in service of issues of equity, inclusion, and justice.

Shine Light on the Problem

Start by asking your students to compare the demographics of your scientific field with those of America. My students prepare before class by exploring the biennial Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering report, which shares detailed demographic data about American scientists across many fields; then in class they compare the racial makeup of the American population with the racial demographics of physicists in America. A similar exercise is possible in other scientific fields and with other social identities. By doing this, students can practice proportional reasoning, data analysis, graph making, constructing an argument from evidence, and sharpening their sense of what a fair and just scientific field might look like.

If your experience is like mine, you’ll find that this exercise leads to additional questions from your students: They will likely wonder what explains why people of certain identities aren’t scientists, and many will suspect that the problem doesn’t entirely lie in intentional exclusion. In my class, we generate a list of hypotheses that might explain the over- and underrepresentation that they see in their pie charts. Their homework that night is to do internet research to test the validity of some of these hypotheses. The next day, we discuss what they’ve found through whole-class discussion. The fact that every student has done this research means all students are engaged and contributing meaningfully to the discussion.

Teach Science as Human Endeavor

The Next Generation Science Standards mandate teaching “science as a human endeavor.” To me, this includes both diversifying the scientists that I do talk about and helping students to see how science culture reflects the same biases and systemic exclusions present in most human endeavors.

In my class, we do this by exploring the practice of science in the real world and how my students’ own scientific learning reflects some of those same influences. We discuss case studies in which scientists point to systemic racism’s effect on their careers, and I ask students to sharpen their definition of racism as we do. My students reflect on and share how their racial identities, and the way they have been treated accordingly, have supported and hindered their own progress as burgeoning scientists. We explore our implicit racial and gender biases by way of the Implicit Association Test and discuss whether those biases make a difference at our school.

To my surprise and delight, significantly greater proportions of my students expressed science self-efficacy and comfort in conversations talking about race after experiencing these lessons, and when I invite and guide my students to apply what they’ve learned to make the world more just, the results are remarkable. I’ve watched with awe as my students have created and delivered lesson plans to share what they’d learned with younger students, written op-eds in our school paper, lobbied our administration to hire more faculty of color, discussed how to support the persistence of other science students who share underrepresented identities, and audited our campus through the lens of disability justice (among other examples).

Resources and Outcomes

These lessons now exist as a free resource called the Underrepresentation Curriculum. Over time, I have worked with teachers around the country to build on what I was doing in my own classroom to help more science teachers incorporate social justice into their work. The resource guides teachers through the process of planning and facilitating this work, including detailed plans for the lessons described above and many more; and our online community supports teachers as they determine how to use these lessons in their own classrooms. More than 3,000 teachers have accessed the resource—a number that continues to rise rapidly.

My first attempts to incorporate identity, equity, and justice into my science teaching felt nerve-racking because I was new to it, but students responded positively; for 15 years now, anonymous post-unit surveys from a total of hundreds of students have indicated that 95 percent of my students have found these lessons worthwhile. Awareness of racial inequality has risen in recent years, and so has appreciation for this perspective in my courses. In the representative words of one student, “Social justice applies to everyone, everywhere, at any time.”

In my experience, integrating social justice into science education is both exhilarating and uncomfortable. That discomfort is understandable—as science teachers, few of us received training in how to weave these threads together. And yet we must persist, as we do whenever we identify a change needed in our teaching practices.

Our students will benefit as they construct a more accurate picture of the nature of science, who does science, and how science and they themselves are influenced by society. Our schools will benefit as our students gain experience and skill listening across differences and having honest conversations about challenging topics. And our society will benefit as our students enter it motivated and equipped to make concrete changes to make the world a more just place. In this way, our science teaching can become part of the practice of freedom.

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