In an Era of Pandemic and Protest, STEM Education Can’t Pretend to Be Apolitical

Across the U.S., the push to reopen schools is predicated on troubling beliefs about schools and families. Time at home is assumed to result in “learning loss” because our institutions measure learning and achievement by standardized test scores, and do not consider students’ families as a source of education. Besides chasing test score gains, the driving goal for reopening schools is facilitating parents’ return to work — regardless of the health consequences for all involved.

However, this summer’s powerful protests against police violence and racism have pushed our public discourse to go beyond these misguided calls for a return to normalcy and reopening of the economy. The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the United States — the nation often upheld as the leader in scientific innovation — as unable (or unwilling) to use its vast resources to care for its people at the most basic human level. Yet the country rapidly mobilized its military and police to repress outrage against deep, persistent and violent anti-Blackness.

As science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education researchers, we anticipate that efforts to restore the damaged global image of the U.S. will double down on an enduring paradigm which positions STEM education as operating in service of U.S. economic and military supremacy. We see this “return to normalcy” as a failure of leadership in this moment. It assumes that the status quo was desirable or healthy for students and communities and represents a massive missed opportunity to reimagine the deeper purposes of STEM education, and education more broadly. In fact, one reason for our current situation is the hyper focus on a nationalistic STEM pipeline that does not train professionals or educate students toward our collective social and ecological well-being.

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. The need to rethink STEM curricula is also a crucial matter of public health. The pandemic illustrates how we have become dependent on widespread public understanding of epidemiology as tied to a sense of responsibility for one another’s fate. This is not the type of learning our schools have been prioritizing.

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.

What if we were to invite children into science and math as pluralistic practices of making sense of the world that have always been tied to values, histories and places? What if we built from their cultural ways of knowing and their deep ethical sensibilities to develop complex views of natural systems as tied to complex views of social systems? 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. Challenging current narratives of “learning loss,” this vision also re-grounds learning in the ways of knowing and relating that are already deeply present within families and communities and recognizes that consequential learning occurs in places they live, not only in school buildings.

For generations, high school students have righteously questioned their teachers’ insistence that they memorize the quadratic formula or the phases of mitosis. Secondary math and science are consistently among the most dreaded and failed courses and also where discriminatory racialized and gendered pathways diverge most sharply. Reforms have made substantial progress towards authentically engaging students with scientific practices, but fall short of engaging them with related political and ethical considerations. Our present circumstances highlight the complex social and scientific thinking our world demands and suggest that the standard requirements of biology, chemistry and physics are outdated.

Imagine, if instead of regurgitating the work of Newton, Darwin or Avogadro, high school students were regularly challenged to think about health, food production, energy and transportation as complex, systemic challenges with social and scientific components. Thinking about such locally relevant problems as embedded in global systems would better equip learners to deal with pandemics and racial inequities, and better approximate the complex problem-solving required of STEM professionals. 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.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic exposes a fundamental contradiction in the underlying logics of higher education. 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, perhaps through an outdated ethics requirement that most students rightly brush off as the “easy” checkbox in their otherwise rigorous curriculum. 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. Fortunately, some brave medical professionals have taken a stand even as their field threatens to marginalize them. These cumulative conditions are increasingly placing science professionals at risk for careers of anguish and declining mental health.

Meanwhile, non-STEM majors largely avoid any kind of sustained engagement with critical topics in science, mathematics or technology that nonetheless shape their lives. While this may spare students from harsh grading curves and curricula that do not make relevant connections with their lives, it helps reinforce the illusion of separate worlds. We worry that in colleges and universities across the nation, this is what a “return to normalcy” will continue to offer.

In this moment of great peril and possibility, we have the rare opportunity to reinvent teaching and learning toward racial, ecological and global justice. Let’s match the political clarity of protesters on the streets, and STEM professionals reexamining the character of their own disciplines, to remake STEM learning as not merely a technical and economic pursuit, but a moral and ethical one.