If ever there was a time that demonstrated the need for a science-proficient society, this is it. Future studies of the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly conclude that hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been prevented had the public and leaders in the United States and around the world made better use of science. Likewise, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other African Americans have revealed society’s lack of understanding of statistical evidence that documents racial injustice in the United States. Ensuring that the general public can address society’s issues requires that all students have access to high-quality science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, especially the 65 percent of college graduates who earn degrees outside of STEM, according to 2017 data from the National Science Foundation.
Whether or not they choose STEM careers, college graduates will engage with science throughout their lives. They will need to incorporate scientific knowledge into the decisions they make and the problems they solve, whether these are personal (Should I get vaccinated?), professional (Should I require my employees to get vaccinated?), or civic (Should vaccination be required for public sector workers?). Our graduates will need to locate reliable sources of scientific information and educate themselves about complex concepts they might not have encountered in their formal science courses. They will also need to grapple with data, using quantitative and statistical reasoning to understand what empirical evidence reveals about an issue. In addition, they will need to evaluate the scientific and quantitative claims that bombard them from advertisements, political leaders, news sources, online communities, family, and friends, a task that requires scientific habits of the mind such as skepticism, adherence to sound logic, reliance on evidence over authority, and consideration of alternative explanations. Equipped with these skills, our graduates—both STEM and non-STEM majors—will be well prepared to use science in ways relevant to their lives and to contribute as science-proficient citizens.
To fulfill higher education’smission to educate for democracy and produce a liberally educated, science-proficient public, we must assess whether general education courses in the sciences deliver the skills students need as citizens. Science courses for majors are typically backward-designed to prepare professionals for the STEM workforce, but courses for students with other career aspirations are usually forward-designed with the goal of transferring to students the most important concepts in a scientific discipline, often through a watered-down approach, rather than helping students develop broad, transferable scientific thinking.
Producing science-proficient citizens requires educators to backward-design courses from how these citizens will use science in their lives, as Noah Weeth Feinstein, Sue Allen, and Edgar Jenkins explain in a 2013 paper in Science. Educators must move from asking, “How do I bring my discipline to nonmajors?” to asking, “How can I use my discipline to improve students’ societal thinking?” Rather than transmitting disciplinary content through a broad introductory course accompanied by a lab, courses should help students practice the skills they need as liberally educated citizens: making decisions using science, evaluating scientific and quantitative claims, locating and evaluating sources of information, and educating themselves about complex topics, all in an interdisciplinary setting. A socio-scientific approach to science education that incorporates these learning outcomes is one way to link social issues with scientific concepts, as described in the 2011 book Socio-scientific Issues in the Classroom, edited by Troy D. Sadler. For example, instead of memorizing facts, students can debate the pros and cons of single-use plastic or interrogate whether CRISPR gene editing technology should be used to eradicate invasive rodent species on islands. Study of socioscientific issues allows students to grapple with unscripted problems and integrate knowledge rather than treat science as something separate—skills students will need as contributors to a just and productive society.
For our society to be science proficient, students outside of STEM must develop scientific literacy, and STEM students must engage as citizens. We often leave the citizen component out of our discipline-first scientific courses, and it shows. Although college student voter registration and turnout are on the rise overall, students with STEM majors vote at lower rates than other students. The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University found that 58 percent of engineering students and 62 percent of natural sciences and mathematics students voted in the 2020 election, compared with 66 percent of all college students. A likely culprit for the lower turnout is higher education’s failure to truly integrate societal issues into science courses. But by changing the status quo, we can create a cadre of scientists who will engage the public in the scientific evidence needed to address global issues like climate change, health, and clean water.
Thankfully, many science faculty members are willing and able to undertake the work of redesigning courses to meet students’ needs. For instance, a group of chemists (including faculty from colleges and universities across the United States) got together virtually in summer 2020—in the wake of racially motivated civil unrest—as an ad hoc learning community on aligning chemistry courses with equity and justice. Week by week, we came up with suggestions and implementation plans around using open education resources, highlighting historical and current chemists from underrepresented backgrounds, and deploying chemistry-relevant content on race as a social construct.
It is not always easy to find the time and resources for incorporating societal issues into scientific coursework—or incorporating scientific thinking into explorations of societal issues—but the tasks are worthwhile. Increasingly, professional societies, think tanks, and grant-funded initiatives offer opportunities for curricular and pedagogical change. One excellent tool is the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, which provides nearly one thousand peer-reviewed case studies that run across scientific disciplines and allied areas like education, sociology, and journalism. These cases promote scientific and critical thinking and cover topics as diverse as gender fluidity, wetlands conservation, and peace. Resources from the K–12 sphere, such as It’s Debatable! Using Socioscientific Issues to Develop Scientific Literacy, K–12 by Dana L. Zeidler and Sami Kahn, also have much to offer.
The need to prepareall students, STEM and non-STEM majors alike, to engage with science as citizens reveals a false dichotomy between major and nonmajor designations. Instead, we should advance the more inclusive perspective that all students are science students, as seen in the figure above. All too often in STEM, nonmajors are viewed as less capable than majors, and teaching nonmajors is regarded as a lower-status endeavor. Indeed, the terms “nonmajor” and “service course” at best perpetuate this hierarchical view and at worst function as pejorative terms, providing no indication of why science courses are so critical to non-STEM majors’ education.
Tertiary science education will only be inclusive and equitable when we value the science education of every student. As our current crises related to health, racial reckoning, and a growing political divide have made tragically apparent, adopting this more inclusive perspective is not a luxury for higher education; our very lives depend on it.
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