Monique Verdin, "Headwaters : Tamaracks + Time : Lake Itasca" (2019), digital assemblage. Photograph taken in 2019; United States War Department map of the route passed over by an expedition into the Indian country in 1832 to the source of the Mississippi River.

Connecting STEM with Social Justice

The United States faces a significant and stubbornly unyielding racialized persistence gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Nilanjana Dasgupta sums up one needed solution in the title of her article: “To Make Science and Engineering More Diverse, Make Research Socially Relevant” (Issues, Fall 2023).

Among the students who enter college intending to study STEM, persons excluded because of ethnicity or race (PEERs) which includes students identifying as Black, Indigenous, and Latine, have a twofold greater likelihood of leaving these disciplines than do non-PEERs. While we know what are not the reasons for the racialized gap—not lack of interest or preparation—we largely don’t know how to effectively close the gap. We know engaging undergraduates in mentored, authentic scientific research raises their self-efficacy and feeling of belonging. However, effective research experiences are difficult to scale because they require significant investments in mentoring and research infrastructure capacity.

Another intervention is much less expensive and much more scalable. Utility-value interventions (UVIs) provide a remarkably long-lasting positive effect on students. In this approach, over an academic term students in an introductory science course spend a modest amount of class time reflecting and writing about how the scientific topic just introduced is personally related to them and their communities. The UVIs benefit all students, resulting in little or no difference in STEM persistence between PEERs and non-PEERs.

The overhaul will be the creation of new courses that seamlessly integrate basic science concepts with society and social justice.

Can we do more? Rather than occasionally interrupting class to allow students to connect a science concept with real-world social needs, can we change the way we present the concept? The UVI inspires a vision of a new STEM curriculum comprising reimagined courses. We might call the result Socially Responsive STEM, or SR-STEM. SR-STEM would be more than distribution or general education requirements, and more than learning science in the context of a liberal arts education. Instead, the overhaul will be the creation of new courses that seamlessly integrate basic science concepts with society and social justice. The courses would encourage students to think critically about the interplay between STEM and non-STEM disciplines such as history, literature, religion, and economics, and explore how STEM affects society.

Here are a few examples from the life sciences; I think similar approaches can be developed for other STEM disciplines. When learning about evolution, students would investigate and discuss the evidence used to create the false polygenesis theory of human races. In genetics, students would evaluate the evidence of epigenetics effects resulting from the environment and poverty. In immunology, students would explore the sociology and politics of vaccine avoidance. The mechanisms of natural phenomena would be discussed from different perspectives, including indigenous ways of knowing about nature.

Implementing SR-STEM will require a complete overhaul of the learning infrastructure, including instructor preparation, textbooks, Advanced Placement courses, GRE and other standardized exams, and accreditation (e.g., ACS and ABET) criteria. The stories of discoveries we tell in class will change, from the “founding (mostly white and dead) fathers” to contemporary heroes of many identities and from all backgrounds.

It is time to begin a movement in which academic departments, professional societies, and funding organizations build Socially Responsive STEM education so that the connection of STEM to society and social justice is simply what we do.

Former Senior Director for Science Education

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

To maximize the impact of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in society, we need to do more than attract a diverse, socially concerned cohort of students to pursue and persist through our academic programs. We need to combine the technical training of these students with social skill building.

To advance sustainability, justice, and resilience goals in the real world (not just through arguments made in consulting reports and journal papers), students need to learn how to earn the respect and trust of communities. In addition to understanding workplace culture, norms, and expectations, and cultivating negotiation skills, they need to know to research the history, interests, racial, cultural, and equitable identities, and power imbalances in communities before beginning their work. They need to appreciate the community’s interconnected and, at times, conflicting needs and aspirations. And they need to learn how to communicate and collaborate effectively, to build allies and coalitions, to follow through, and to neither overpromise nor prematurely design the “solution” before fully understanding the problem. They must do all this while staying within the project budget, schedule, and scope—and maintaining high quality in their work.

One of the problems is that many STEM faculty lack these skills themselves. Some may consider the social good implications only after a project has been completed. Others may be so used to a journal paper as the culmination of research that they forget to relay and interpret their technical findings to the groups who could benefit most from them. Though I agree that an increasing number of faculty appear to be motivated by equity and multidisciplinarity in research, translation of research findings into real world recommendations is much less common. If it happens at all, it frequently oversimplifies key logistical, institutional, cultural, legal, or regulatory factors that made the problem challenging in the first place. Both outcomes greatly limit the social value of STEM research. While faculty in many fields now use problem-based learning to tackle real world problems in teaching, we are also notorious for attempting to address a generational problem in one semester, then shifting our attention to something else. We request that community members enrich our classrooms by sharing their lived experiences and perspectives with our students without giving much back in return.

Such practices must end if we, as STEM faculty, are to retain our credibility both in the community and with our students, and if we wish to see our graduates embraced by the communities they seek to serve.

Such practices must end if we, as STEM faculty, are to retain our credibility both in the community and with our students, and if we wish to see our graduates embraced by the communities they seek to serve. The formative years of today’s students were juxtaposed on a backdrop of bad news. If they chose STEM because of a belief that science has answers to these maddening challenges, these students need real evidence that their professional actions will yield tangible and positive outcomes. Just like members of the systematically disadvantaged and marginalized communities they seek to support, these students can easily spot hypocrisy, pretense, greenwashing, and superficiality.

As a socially engaged STEM researcher and teacher, I have learned that I must be prepared to follow through with what I have started—as long as it takes. I prep my students for the complex social dynamics they will encounter, without coddling or micromanaging them. I require that they begin our projects with an overview of the work’s potential practical significance, and that our research methods answer questions that are codeveloped with external partners, who themselves are financially compensated for their time whenever possible. By modeling these best practices, I try to give my students (regardless of their cultural or racial backgrounds) competency not just in STEM, but in application of their work in real contexts.

Professor, Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering

Drexel University

Nilanjana Dasgupta’s article inspired reflection on our approach at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) to promoting diversity in science nationwide along with supporting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education specifically in North Carolina. These and other program efforts have reinforced our belief in the power of collaboration and partnership to create change.

These and other program efforts have reinforced our belief in the power of collaboration and partnership to create change.

For nearly 30 years, BWF has supported organizations across North Carolina that provide hands-on, inquiry-based activities for students outside the traditional classroom day. These programs offer a wide range of STEM experiences for students. Some of the students “tinker,” which we consider a worthwhile way to experience the nuts-and-bolts of research, and others explore more socially relevant experiences. An early example is from a nonprofit in the city of Jacksonville, located near the state’s eastern coast. In the program, the city converted an old wastewater treatment plant into an environmental education center where students researched requirements for reintroducing sturgeon and shellfish into the local bay. More than 1,000 students spent their Saturdays learning about environmental science and its application to improve the quality of water in the local watershed. The students engaged their families and communities in a dialogue about environmental awareness, civic responsibility, and local issues of substantial scientific and economic interest.

For our efforts in fostering diversity in science, we have focused primarily on early-career scientists. Our Postdoctoral Diversity Enrichment Program provides professional development support for underrepresented minority postdoctoral fellows. The program places emphasis on a strong mentoring strategy and provides opportunities for the fellows to engage with a growing network of scholars.

Recently, BWF has become active in the Civic Science movement led by the Rita Allen Foundation, which describes civic science as “broad engagement with science and evidence [that] helps to inform solutions to society’s most pressing problems.” This movement is very much in its early stages, but it holds immense possibility to connect STEM to social justice. We have supported fellows in science communication, diversity in science, and the interface of arts and science.

Another of our investments in this space is through the Our Future Is Science initiative, hosted by the Aspen Institute’s Science and Society program. The initiative aims to equip young people to become leaders and innovators in pushing science toward improving the larger society. The program’s goals include sparking curiosity and passion about the connection between science and social justice among youth and young adults who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color, as well as those who have low income or reside in rural communities. Another goal is to accelerate students’ participation in the sciences to equip them to link their interests to tangible educational and career STEM opportunities that may ultimately impact their communities.

This is an area ripe for exploration, and I was pleased to read the author’s amplification of this message. At the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, we welcome the opportunity to collaborate on connecting STEM and social justice work to ignite societal change. As a philanthropic organization, we strive to holistically connect the dots of STEM education, diversity in science, and scientific research.

President and CEO

Burroughs Wellcome Fund

As someone who works on advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics higher education, I welcome Nilanjana Dasgupta’s pointed recommendation to better connect STEM research with social justice. Gone are the days of the academy being reserved for wealthy, white men to socialize and explore the unknown, largely for their own benefit. Instead, today’s academy should be rooted in addressing the challenges that the whole of society faces, whether that be how to sustain food systems, build more durable infrastructure, or identify cures for heretofore intractable diseases.

Approaching STEM research with social justice in mind is the right thing to do both morally and socially. And our educational environments will be better for it, attracting more diverse and bright minds to science. As Dasgupta demonstrates, research shows that when course content is made relevant to students’ lives, students show increases in interest, motivation, and success—and all these findings are particularly pronounced for students of color.

Despite focused attention on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion over the past several decades, Black, Indigenous, and Latine students continue to remain underrepresented in STEM disciplines, especially in graduate education and the careers that require such advanced training. In 2020, only 24% of master’s and 16% of doctoral degrees in science and engineering went to Black, Indigenous, and Latine graduates, despite these groups collectively accounting for roughly 37% of the US population aged 18 through 34. Efforts to increase representation have also faced significant setbacks due to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the consideration of race in admissions. However, Dasgupta’s suggestion may be one way we continue to further the nation’s goal of diversifying STEM fields in legally sustainable ways, by centering individuals’ commitments to social justice rather than, say, explicitly considering race or ethnicity in admissions processes.

What if universities centered faculty hiring efforts on scholars who are addressing social issues and seeking to make the world a more equitable place, rather than relying on the otherwise standard approach of hiring graduates from prestigious institutions who publish in top-tier journals?

Moreover, while Dasgupta does well to provide examples of how we might transform STEM education for students, the underlying premise of her article—that connecting STEM to social justice is an underutilized tool—is relevant to several other aspects of academia as well.

For instance, what if universities centered faculty hiring efforts on scholars who are addressing social issues and seeking to make the world a more equitable place, rather than relying on the otherwise standard approach of hiring graduates from prestigious institutions who publish in top-tier journals? The University of California, San Diego, may serve as one such example, having hired 20 STEM faculty over the past three years whose research uses social justice frameworks, including bridging Black studies and STEM. These efforts promote diverse thought and advance institutional missions to serve society.

Science philanthropy is also well poised to prioritize social justice research. At Sloan, we have a portfolio of work that examines critical and under-explored questions related to issues of energy insecurity, distributional equity, and just energy system transitions in the United States. These efforts recognize that many historically marginalized racial and ethnic communities, as well as economically vulnerable communities, are often unable to participate in the societal transition toward low-carbon energy systems due to a variety of financial, social, and technological challenges.

In short, situating STEM in social justice should be the default, not the occasional endeavor.

Program Associate

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Cite this Article

“Connecting STEM with Social Justice.” Issues in Science and Technology 40, no. 2 (Winter 2024).

Vol. XL, No. 2, Winter 2024