STEM and social justice are deeply intertwined. When we show students how STEM can be mobilized in ways that can help (or harm) groups who have been marginalized, we are doing more than just teaching skills, we are planting seeds for social change through STEM.
While it is increasingly common for STEM classes to include projects about solving real-world problems, when you apply a social justice lens to a project, you can make it significantly more impactful for students. So, how do we apply a social justice lens to STEM?
First, let’s define social justice. Social justice means equal rights and fair access to resources and opportunities across social groups. It means that, in a socially just society, your ability to access rights, resources, and opportunties would not be impacted by the social groups you belong to–your socioeconomic status, your race/ethnicity, your sex, gender, or sexuality, your ability, etc.
Applying a social justice lens does not mean a major change to the content of your STEM instruction. It means that you provide students a path to go deeper into the issues. A social justice lens pushes us to “zoom out” from the individual and examine the social context beyond the STEM problem. Exploring the social context means that you look at history, at politics, at culture, and think through questions like: What caused this problem? Who is responsible? What social groups are more likely to be affected by this problem? Are there differing perspectives on this problem? Which groups have more or less power to solve this problem? How can we zoom out from the individual to see the social solution?
When students can place STEM in the larger social context, they can see the power that STEM innovation holds to change our world for the better–or worse, depending on how we use it. If STEM innovation is not used responsibly, or if certain voices are missing from the solution, it can harm marginalized groups. We need to guide our students to intentionally explore diverse populations and perspectives when we are trying to solve any given problem.
An example of how STEM innovation can have harmful consequences is facial recognition technology. We love the convenience of unlocking electronic devices with only our faces, but when this technology is examined through a social justice lens, we see significant social justice issues. First, the actual technology does not work as well for people of color or for women as it does for white men. It has the most trouble identifying black women. Because police departments use this technology, this is likely to lead to wrongful arrests and convictions, specifically of Black Americans, whose communities are already subject to high levels of surveillance. If we can help our students understand this social complexity, we are providing them with tools they can use in any future career, but are especially needed in STEM.
So what would it actually look like to lay a social justice framework over a STEM project?
A STEM project at the elementary level might challenge students to design new playground equipment. They might explore the geometry of playground design, complete school-wide surveys about what their peers want to see in the playground, and prototype solutions to present to the class. This type of challenge is great because it is driven by student interest and develops a variety of STEM skills. However, if we have larger social justice goals that we want to lay over our STEM instruction, this is a perfect opportunity to take it deeper. Instead, we might challenge them to update existing playground equipment to make it inclusive for all. We would engage them in conversations about and explorations of power (who has the power to decide what equipment ends up in the playground), privilege (unequal access to fun for kids with disabilities), and policy (ADA and IDEA compliance). And then we would research and create STEM solutions.
Another example of a STEM challenge might be to design a water filtration device or a water safety test. This can be a great STEM lesson because there are many opportunities for engineering tie-ins and chemistry connections. However, if we have larger social justice goals, we can go further. We could start with helping our students research what happened in the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. We can guide our students to ask and explore questions like, Who caused it? Who was impacted? How is the problem being solved? Was anyone held accountable? Why was this group impacted and not others? We can also explore complex ethical questions like, Is clean water a human right? If clean water is a human right, what does that mean for governments? How can we ensure that everyone has clean water? How can we ensure that this doesn’t happen again? What is a government’s responsibility for the health and safety of their citizens? Students will still explore the chemistry of it all, how water gets treated, and how STEM innovation can solve this problem, but they would take so much more from this lesson than skills.
When students can see the importance of STEM issues in their local communities, there is more motivation to engage with the lessons. We are drawing a direct, explicit connection to the human impact. Using this lens, we can show young people how they can mobilize STEM for social justice, to solve problems that exist in their communities and around the world.
More student engagement will inevitably lead to increased representation in the STEM fields. White men still make up the vast majority of STEM professionals. Showing young people how STEM can solve the problems they experience in their lives is imperative to bringing diverse groups of young people into these fields. Additionally, for those young people who want to go into “helping” professions, we can show them that STEM is one of the professions. Students from communities who have been marginalized might be especially motivated to help people in their own communities. We need them in these fields more than ever, but they may be steered away from STEM when they tell adults that they want to work for social justice.
Innovative solutions are possible when diverse voices are at the table. So, if we can pull in many voices, draw clear connections to how STEM innovation relates to social inequalities, and show them how powerful of a tool STEM can be to solve social problems, we do more than teach them skills, we empower them to be advocates for those who need it most. We need all of our students to grow up to be problem solvers and using this lens in our STEM instruction is one way to plant that seed.