STEM education should be moral, anti-racist, clear-eyed

STEM
MGN

On June 10, a self-described “multi-identity, intersectional coalition of STEM professionals and academics” organized a one-day strike to withhold scientific labor to confront anti-Blackness in their fields. 

This campaign to #ShutDownSTEM recognizes that the ideology of White supremacy permeates all of the nation’s institutions, including our existing system of STEM education, whether or not they claim to embrace diversity. Gross inequities in educational resources and opportunities are well known; less often discussed, but equally consequential, are the failures of curricula to challenge scientific racism or question STEM’s role in war and environmental injustice. 

Young people would be better served by STEM education that teaches them to deal with the complexity of problems like pandemics and climate change with a clear-eyed view of politics and history.

Anyone who has spent meaningful time with young children can observe how artistic, scientific, literary, mathematical and ethical questions and ideas animate their engagement with the natural and social world. Yet our current system often teaches children to compartmentalize these ways of knowing—to the detriment of the deeper learning we could be cultivating. 

Teaching students narrow and apolitical views of science also hides the fact that the everyday practice of STEM routinely involves moral decision-making. This point is clearly revealed by the dilemmas health care practitioners face and the forms of protest they have been compelled to enact during the pandemic, as well as by the recent effort of mathematicians to expose the role of their discipline in racist policing practices.

In one science education project, researchers, educators, families and community-based organizations have developed models of field based (outdoor) inquiry led by “should we” questions that engage children in investigating human decision making in their families, neighborhoods, and in our broader social systems alongside evidence and growing understandings of phenomena in the world. Such approaches support students to see who they are as tied to what they know, how they know and why (to what ends), and present a humbler and nuanced view of how STEM knowledge is, and has been, generated globally. 

We know many phenomenal STEM teachers who directly take on oppression and teach toward environmental and racial justice, health equity and diverse intellectual traditions. Such courses go beyond reforms that focus on students’ development of technical skills and core concepts. They challenge dominant values and teach ideas and skills in ways that deal explicitly with relationships, history and politics. They cultivate students’ imagination, creativity, empathy and solidarity.

Teaching students narrow and apolitical views of science also hides the fact that the everyday practice of STEM routinely involves moral decision-making.

We teach future STEM professionals a false reality, one in which the worlds of science and technology — and those of economics, politics, culture and ethics — exist separately. Relationships between these artificial silos are mentioned in passing. Students are subsequently launched into their careers unprepared for the moral, cultural or political dimensions of their professional practice, and thus unprepared to transform the inhumane systems in which they will work. 

In this moment of great peril and possibility, we have the rare opportunity to reinvent teaching and learning toward racial, ecological and global justice. 

Daniel Morales-Doyle is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois (Chicago), Shirin Vossoughi, Sepehr Vakil & Megan Bang are professors at Northwestern University.