Okhee Lee, Ph.D., Professor, New York University
Todd Campbell, Ph.D., Professor, Department Head, University of Connecticut
As science disciplines are at center stage in providing solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also complicit in the systemic racism that is endemic in society at large. STEM education, however, can be used to highlight societal inequities and address systemic racism. To achieve this, STEM educators should harness new advances in STEM disciplines to engage all students in socially relevant issues.
We propose an instructional framework that is centered around social justice for all students by engaging them in socially relevant issues to make sense of phenomena and problems, make informed decisions, and take responsible actions. Our instructional framework underscores that by foregrounding social justice and capitalizing on new advances in STEM disciplines, STEM education could redress systemic racism both in and out of school. Specifically, our instructional framework leverages data science, computer science, and convergence of multiple STEM disciplines to anchor stances against systemic racism accentuated through the pandemic. By harnessing the affordances of new advances in these disciplines to address systemic racism, our instructional framework presents one approach to creating “a new normal” for STEM education with social justice for all students.
STEM Education Harnesses New Advances in STEM Disciplines
STEM disciplines are at the core of understanding and responding to societal problems. As such, STEM education should engage all students, including students from underrepresented groups who tend to see science as irrelevant to their lives and future careers, in societal problems that are compelling to figure out (Lee, 2020). Data science and computer science enable students to make sense of the phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic and design solutions to this problem as scientists and engineers do in their professional work (for detailed discussion, see Lee & Campbell, 2020; for a lesson plan, see Campbell & Lee, 2020).
Students Make Sense of Phenomena and Complex Societal Problems Using Data Science and Computer Science
When phenomena and problems involve students’ personal experiences or are relevant to their everyday lives, students feel compelled to figure out such phenomena and problems (National Research Council, 2012). COVID-19 is a prime example of a phenomenon that is directly experienced by every student and therefore is compelling for each student to figure out. Local and global data related to the pandemic have been made publicly available and are regularly updated. A notable example is the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, as this free website provides current data about the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths by city, state, and country.
COVID-19 Cases and Deaths
Note. From COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University, 2021, Coronavirus Resource Center. Copyright 2021 by Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.
As students interact with and manipulate real-world data about COVID-19, they are introduced to important ideas about how the virus spreads and how actions of virus vectors (i.e., people) play a significant role in mitigating the viral spread. Computer models that show how to flatten the curve of the viral spread have been made freely available online, and other online resources allow readers to develop their own models. For example, the following interactive computer models were published by The Washington Post (see Figure 2; for a lesson plan, see Campbell & Lee, 2020).
Publicly Available Interactive Computer Models That Use Real-World COVID-19 Data
Note. From “Why Outbreaks Like the Coronavirus Spread Exponentially, and How to ‘Flatten the Curve,” by H. Stevens, 2020, The Washington Post. Copyright 2020 by The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.
Students Make Informed Decisions and Take Responsible Actions Through Convergence of Multiple STEM Subjects
As students examine the data with implications for what individuals should and should not do, they realize that each and every global citizen should contribute to containing the spread of the virus by following the guidelines established by STEM disciplines. They also realize how these guidelines directly affect their daily lives at home (e.g., wash hands thoroughly and often), in the community (i.e., stay at home, maintain social distancing, wear masks), and in school (e.g., participate in remote learning due to school closures). Thus, students understand that solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic involve each individual doing their part, which is the ultimate form of citizen science.
As students examine the data with implications for what societies should and should not do, they realize that the pandemic involves civic engagement. They realize that large variations between nations (see Figure 3) indicate that every society needs to contribute to containing the spread of the virus by following the guidelines established by STEM disciplines (e.g., testing, contact tracing, medical equipment). Students also realize how each society’s handling of the pandemic impacts the number of cases and deaths among its citizens. Thus, students understand that solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic involve each society doing its part, which is the ultimate form of global citizenship.
Cumulative Confirmed COVID-19 Deaths
Note. From Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19) by M. Roser, H. Ritchie, E. Ortiz-Ospina, and J. Hasell, 2021, Our World in Data. Copyright 2021 by Our World in Data.
STEM Education and STEM Disciplines Work in Concert to Address Systemic Racism
COVID-19 provides an example of how students can be guided to attend to social inequities and consequences of systemic racism while participating in STEM education.
Students Attend to Systemic Racism in the COVID-19 Pandemic
As students engage with the data and computer models about the pandemic, they are most likely to relate this information to themselves, their families, and their communities. Using intentionally designed tasks and tools (Colley & Braaten, 2020), teachers guide students to observe that the high rates of cases and deaths involve disproportionately high rates of racial minorities, including Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Through this process, teachers guide students to ask, Why don’t STEM disciplines consistently disaggregate the data by racial minorities? Why don’t STEM disciplines highlight that when U.S. citizens are infected and dying, this means that racial minorities are disproportionately infected and dying? As students ask such questions, they become aware of disparities due to systemic racism and recognize the need to make systematically disaggregated and comprehensive data by racial groups available to the public.
Students Understand That Solutions to the COVID-19 Pandemic Involve Addressing Systemic Racism
Using intentionally designed tasks and tools (Colley & Braaten, 2020), teachers guide students to observe the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and recognize that racial inequities result in severely negative consequences for marginalized groups. Then, teachers guide students to explore and identify underlying reasons for these disparities, including wealth gaps (see Figure 4), unemployment gaps (see Figure 5), the status of essential workers, incarceration rates, and other social inequities. These issues create enormous challenges for individuals and communities in terms of following the guidelines established by STEM disciplines. Why do STEM disciplines fail to problematize these inequities and raise them as part of the public discourse? What actions must be taken by STEM disciplines to address these inequities? These questions can support students to take action in demanding STEM disciplines specifically and society more broadly take steps to address systemic racism.
Household Wealth Gap by Race
Note. Wealth expressed in thousands of 2019 dollars. From Disparities in Wealth by Race and Ethnicity in the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances by N. Bhutta, A. C. Chang, L. J. Dettling, & J. W. Hsu, 2020, FEDS Notes. Copyright 2020 by Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
Unemployment Gap Between Black and White Men
Note. From “The Enormous Black-White Wage Gap,” by D. Leonhardt, 2020, The New York Times, June 25. Copyright 2020 by The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.
Implications for STEM Educators
While STEM disciplines have taken center stage to offer solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, STEM disciplines have not underscored the disproportionately negative consequences of the pandemic for people of color, the poor, and other marginalized groups. STEM education, working in concert with STEM disciplines that have been complicit with systemic racism, should prepare students as informed and responsible individuals ready to demand and promote social justice in STEM disciplines and society at large.
At this beginning stage in the development of our instructional framework, we present our initial theoretical positions, which will subsequently guide the development of curriculum materials (e.g., see Campbell & Lee, 2020), instructional approaches, and teacher professional learning. At the same time, we will work with disciplinary actors (e.g., scientists, computer scientists) to move beyond apolitical investigations and representations of the data they generate to communicate directly with the public to highlight how systemic racism is apparent at the intersection of science and society and propose solutions to address such inequality.
Our work is grounded in the notion that STEM education should position teacher educators, teacher candidates, teachers, and their students as change agents unwilling to remain complicit in systemic racism and ready, in concert with STEM disciplines, to leverage the power and potential of data science and computer science through the convergence of multiple STEM disciplines to make sense of the pandemic.
- Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and teachers are supported to move away from conceptions of science as apolitical as they support students to recognize and critique social inequities.
- Teachers help students to consider whose interests are and are not being served at the intersection of science and society and what should be done about it.
- Through this questioning, the magnitude of the inequities faced by racial minorities is amplified and centered as the most pressing concern that should be interrogated through informed and justice-centered decision-making in creating a new normal for STEM education.