It would be an understatement to say that we are living through life-changing and challenging times. We are facing multiple pandemics: the health crisis precipitated by COVID; the social crisis reignited by the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd; and the economic crisis legislated by a series of poor decisions from our political leadership. Through it all, we have looked to STEM fields to hold things together. And while we face a crisis against science, more and more we are looking to science for solutions to our most pressing human equations. Moreover, while it might direct our paths, science does not lead us. We the people must.
We must consider the role of science, as the country sits on the brink of beginning again. Thus, it would be a mistake to imagine the school reopening process absent the acknowledgement that something fundamentally disruptive has taken place in our world, that the thing that interrupted life for millions of Americans afflicted vulnerable populations in ways disproportionate to more privileged ones. That’s why, in addition to science, we must center joy and justice in STEM education, humanizing the process of coming back together.
In STEM, how might we engage in culturally responsive-sustaining school reopenings, leveraging elegant ideas borne from the educational equity community? How might we take on the broader social and emotional aspects of returning (in addition to the scientific ones), considering the ways that schools have been traumatizing spaces for vulnerable students? How might we anticipate how reopening schools might add to some students’ anxieties, stress, depression, etc.? The essential question that we must ask in this moment is about resolution: How might we conscript, in our thinking around STEM education in perilous times, ideas that express not only an awareness of equity but also a caring response and deliberate commitment to reshaping a STEM experience that deserves our students?
At New York University (NYU) Metro Center, as some may know, I have been blessed to partner with the people—communities and schools—joining countless others in the fight to advance equity in STEM education and beyond it. Though we fight to advance equity, which is a principle of fairness based on the recognition that all our students are different and come to us for their education with different needs, we also fight to end the systemic racism and white supremacy that make advancing equity in STEM education impossible.
This is the brave conversation we must have in STEM education, that as our boots beat the ground to pay homage to the blood spilt from the violence of systematic racial and social oppression, as we dream up ways to make our teaching more woke, I believe that we in STEM education will best serve our children by standing in resistance to such systems, ideological and otherwise, hewn from the bedrock of bigotry. So, I ask, regardless of your color or linguistic background or citizenship status: What does it mean, when your job is to enforce a curriculum, when that curriculum is explicitly (or implicitly) racist? If this is the case and you do your job—and you do it well—it means that you enforce racism. Plain and simple. This is it! Today, I ask: How might we change our job descriptions?
How might we in a post-COVID education world, make STEM education anti-racist, anti-biased, culturally responsive and sustaining, and reimagined for all our students, especially those who run to us for refuge? How do we call for new institutions, new positionings of our work, that instead of murdering our children’s bodies and killing their souls, love them—”love them to life.” How do we call for a new constitution of STEM education that truly upholds justice because, as Cornell West said, “justice is what love looks like in public”?
Let’s not think that what’s happening in the streets across the country has nothing to do with us. Before Derrick Chauvin dug his knee into George Floyd’s neck, a teacher in the south Bronx, NYC stood on the back of a young Black boy so that he could know what slavery felt like. And though we might want to argue that in STEM education we have not fired a single shot that has claimed innocent life, we can no longer deny the many ways in which we help load the guns of racial animus. Ibram X. Kendi convincingly argues that one cannot be a non-racist; either we fight to end racism, or, in our indifference, we advance it.
The history of STEM education reveals a field that has long failed to be anti-racist. Thus, we have been in the midst of a pandemic for some time, and I’m not talking about COVID-19. I’m talking about the ways in which we take as normal the idea that structural knees bearing upon the necks of our children, who find themselves at the bottom of every desirable statistical category we collect and at the top of every least desirable one, is not about us.
We are implicated in the inequities that surface not only in our schools but that spread throughout our society. Therefore, STEM education must be as much about equity as it is about science, technology, engineering, and math because STEM education is about students. Thus, it is important that all students gain access to STEM fields because this moment has taught us that we count on our scientists, engineers, technicians, statisticians, etc. to solve difficult human equations that often equal the difference between life and death. Right now, we are turning to science to figure out how to move society forward, to technology to enhance our human connections, to engineering to imagine a world on the other side of the social, political, and health crises, to math to not only count our dead but to produce a calculus to expand our living.
STEM educators are essential workers called upon today to prepare the essential workers of tomorrow. And this work, the work of preparing those who will transform our world, is about centering the lives of young people who lean on us in spite of their circumstances, who look to us for care and safety. They look to our collective imaginations and powerful wills to invent a world that deserves them because this is what I know: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
I also know that when we look at STEM education, we must stare at a set of disquieting realities that should make each of us uncomfortable: that STEM education in our nation is tale of disparities—a narrative that is further animated by race, gender, ability, language, and other social statuses demarcated along lines of privilege and vulnerability. Indeed, our most vulnerable children, in STEM education, are languishing. Inequity is a condition of their lives. Racism in STEM education is real, and it intersects with other social realities such as gender and language bias, housing instabilities and food insecurities, age and ability hierarchies, economic oppression, and so on.
Even though we know that this moment has shown us what we, perhaps, already knew: that our schools are not currently designed to favor the dispossessed and the maligned; that even before we were forced to stare at the digital divide, finally understanding that the material possession of technology isn’t evenly distributed; before we acknowledged that some students in STEM education would struggle—Black, Brown, and Indigenous students, multilingual learner students, students with IEPs and 504 plans—in this moment of Black Lives Matter where each of our lives is so implicated in either the maintenance or interruption of social injustice, in a time of COVID-19 and cries of “I can’t breathe”; we are being taught that a new world is possible.
This is a crucial lesson. It’s true that various narratives of disparity shape how we understand STEM education. This is why we march—because social inequity is so pervasive in our lives that we can no longer ignore it. This is why so many of us in STEM education have locked arms with countless others in our streets—because our Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth are disproportionality suspended, placed into special education more, graduate at lower rates, and, in STEM, perform less well on standardized tests and all other measures of academic achievement. It’s true that these disparities increase at intersections of linguistic difference, ability difference, gender difference, and at the apex of other vulnerabilities, as I have said.
But the point of this blog is not to focus on what we already know but to move us toward resolution. Thus, our goals in response to COVID-19, to racial inequity—to the very assaults against our lives—must be new and renewed. This is the lesson: Our goals for STEM education must be forged out of not what the disease has taken from us but what it has given us.
Slowing Down to Move Forward
My advice is simple: To move forward, we must slow down. This is the question: Not how to continue STEM education as we have known it, but what should we be doing in STEM education during this incredibly crucial intermission? This is what we must do:
First, we listen. There are many ways to listen, as my colleagues at NYU Metro Center have suggested through our “Listening Project.” The founder of the Listening Project, my friend and colleague psychologist and gender theorist, Niobe Way, speaks of the science of human connection, which is beginning to help us understand the root systems plaguing our culture, our social communities, and our classrooms. Niobe speaks of what she calls “the crisis of connection”—the idea that so many of us, so many of our ideas, our systems, our fundamental human practice, is shaped by disconnection. This is what structural racism is—it speaks to how systems are disconnected from the very people they are meant to serve on the fundamental basis of race or language or false ascriptions of human status that play politics with borders. This is what culturally irrelevant curriculum is—it is curriculum disconnected from the lives of the very students we teach.
This disconnection shapes a far more powerful narrative of success and failure than anything else in STEM education; we have seen it borne out in the stubborn pattern of disparities that plague STEM disciplines. But worse it leads to consequences of structural and emotional violence that turn into structural forms of trauma and the kinds of threats that make education a hostile site for many of our children. It also makes the work of educating our most vulnerable children in STEM education close to impossible.
So how do we connect? As Niobe suggests:
Therefore, we must listen by creating the protocols and systems that give us time to hear and learn from those who are most implicated by the decisions that we make. I know that this isn’t the “western” way, which in so many ways is concerned with the opposite of stopping and listening. But one of the most important lessons we are learning in a time of COVID-19 is that we don’t have all the answers, that life and death, quite literally, depend on our ability to chart new courses.
In addition to listening, we must partner. In doing so, we must resist the impulse to make decisions alone but instead enlist the support of the people with whom we have spoken, guided by the understanding that those who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. The other important lesson that COVID-19 is teaching us is that we are in this together—ubuntu—”I am because we are.” The decisions that I make affect you, and the ones that you make affect me.
This is the big picture that we must carry with us from this point forward: if we are to build brighter and bolder learning environments for our students on the other side of pandemics and protests, if we are to find shade amidst the intense heat of this moment, we must grab hands, put all our answers on the table, and do as James Baldwin has so eloquently suggested: “Search deeply within answers for the questions they conceal.” Once we get to the right questions together, we will be closer to getting to the right answers together. Perhaps the biggest issue with the current system is that it was not designed by all of us, together, for each of us. The current system seems to work well for the people who designed it; it works horribly for those of us it was imposed upon.
Third, we must collectively act. The first part of collective action must be about understanding how to curate an experience that starts with an acknowledgement that something has happened and, indeed, has always been happening to our most vulnerable students. The system is an historical and social artifact. It functions as its designers intended, shaped by the weaker impulses of those designers. It clings to the dark cosmetics of social hierarchy tainted by sexism, racism, language oppression, economic oppression, and other social, economic, cultural, and political forces of violence that inhabit STEM education. Each of these forces has yielded historical consequences that manifest in our schools and magnify over time and continue to this day.
The acknowledgement of this history and the deep sociology it reveals means that the first steps of our collective action must be about locating these wounds so that we might focus on healing them, not just the broken bodies of those us who have suffered, but also the broken souls of our school systems. How can we turn the lens of trauma-informed care outward and onto our systems, to see where and when our systems are sick and hurting and hurting our children? To be sure, our children are not broken, but indeed our systems often are.
From an anti-racist education perspective, the action required right now in STEM education has little to do with disciplinary or content knowledge or skills. The action required right now must be about healing ourselves, our systems, and our students from the global pandemic that afflicts our world with biases, infecting countless institutions—STEM fields non-exempt—with a disease of sight that makes these institutions incapable of seeing certain bodies as valued or valuable or even human.
Healing the system will take time. So, we will have to move at “the speed of trust.” As we carefully return to the physical classroom, it must be okay if we don’t go straight into the curriculum, at least not until weeks 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, or 12. This time spent healing ourselves and our systems will take us farther than simply pressing forward while sick.
There is an African proverb that says,
I conducted an unpublished study of STEM classrooms recently. One set of classrooms entered the curriculum on day one without purposing healing, without ensuring all students were equally ready to go. A comparison set of classrooms took time to purpose healing, to focus on and center students and their well-being, to collectively address the social and emotional aspects of learning before going into the curriculum so that all students were equally ready to go. The classrooms that paused at the beginning, that purposed healing, that took a humanizing approach to STEM education, ended up getting farther than the ones that launched forward. Not only did they end up covering more of the curriculum, the students did better. Not only that, the students felt better.
Advancing justice in STEM education is about experience. How we can curate better ones for our students? Indeed, we don’t want to “go back” to normal; we want things to improve. Part of that improvement means envisioning a system or set of environments that are welcoming and affirming, where the least desired or redundant components from the curriculum, for the very experience of STEM education itself, are omitted. It means dealing with the idea that STEM education is a site of punishment for some of our students—and this punitive narrative is regrettably based in some of our most dangerous and biased logics. How can we help all students, particularly our most vulnerable students, experience schooling as a site of joy?
Joy is one of the basics of learning. The French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests that learning is erotic. The American poet and cultural theorist Audre Lorde adds that “the erotic” can be used as a source of power both to motivate and entice, and equally to transmit, connect, and radically transform. However, too often, STEM education, for too many of our children, is constructed as a site of what Michael Dumas calls suffering. Again, how might we, instead, imagine a system or set of environments that center joy, where one of the key outcomes of engagement and interaction, of learning itself, is pleasure?
A joy-based reimagining of STEM education is attainable. It will involve more human-to-human interaction, collaborative learning, less or no homework, very few assessments that are continuous in nature and group assessments that feel less burdensome. A joy-based reimagining of STEM education is one where we replicate spaces that center students and let go of anything that continues to marginalize, exclude, and harm them.
Learn more about Dr. Kirkland by clicking on the following links:
A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Black Males
How a Dyslexic Boy Fell in Love with Words
Elements of Oppression
Transformation Needed to Integrate School
English Professor Directs NYU Center to Make Education More Equitable