Teaching the Stories of Science
A DISCUSSION OFShining a Light on the Impacts of Our Innovations
In “Shining a Light on the Impacts of Our Innovations” (Issues, Spring 2021), Ainissa Ramirez makes a compelling argument for bringing the stories of scientists and the impact of their research into our textbooks and classrooms. When I went through my degrees, I was taught about science. I learned about polymers—their synthesis, properties, and uses. I learned about interfacial polymerization and the “nylon rope trick” to demonstrate the preparation of a synthetic polymer. It became one of my favorite demonstrations at outreach events. It wasn’t until many years after I was teaching that I realized Stephanie Kwolek, the DuPont chemist known for inventing a family of synthetic fibers of exceptional strength and stiffness, developed the nylon rope trick as a teaching tool. I wished I had known more about her much earlier in my career. Being able to see someone like me in science—someone who had always been there but whose story was rarely told in classes—would have been transformational.
We owe it to our students to teach science in context not only so they might see themselves in the scientists who came before, but also so they might understand the impact science can have. When the Scottish inventor John Boyd Dunlop developed pneumatic tires, he may not have considered the impact on the raw materials’ sources or on the disposal of tires. But the desire for natural rubber exploded with the pneumatic tire, and the exploitation, torture, enslavement, and murder of Black people in the Congo and Indigenous tribes in the Amazon grew out of this invention. What started as a better tricycle tire for Dunlop’s child became the mutilation and murder of a five-year-old named Boali in the Congo. Alice Seeley Harris, a missionary, tried to stop such atrocities from continuing by documenting this horror with one of the first consumer cameras.
One can, of course, teach without the stories. Materials, sources, uses, molecular features can all be taught. But when we arm our students and colleagues with the stories and context, we arm them and ourselves with the opportunity to do better science. We have the opportunity to think about where the cobalt we use in batteries is mined by children, and we have the opportunity to think about the end of life for the cobalt-containing batteries. We can engage with the work of people such as the polymer chemist Karen Wooley and the chemical engineer Jodie Lutkenhaus and their development of new materials for recyclable lithium-ion batteries. We can learn about the work of Max Liboiron, a geographer in the field of “discard studies” who characterizes plastics in the ocean, and LaShanda Korley, a materials scientist who is developing new plastics with the end of life in mind from the start.
When we teach science without societal context, we give our students and ourselves permission to ignore our responsibilities as scientists. But that responsibility does not recede. When we teach our students about the scientists who did the work they study, they have an opportunity to see themselves in those scientists. When we teach them about the impact of science, we give our students the opportunity to think about the full ramifications of their work. When we teach science in context, we have the opportunity to be better scientists.
Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development
College of Engineering and Information Technology
Professor of Chemical, Biochemical, and Environmental Engineering
University of Maryland, Baltimore County