In defense of STEM re: critical pedagogy and content

At this point, I’ve participated in a lot of discussions about how to incorporate more critical discussions about race, gender, and power in the classroom, and thus far, they’ve been dominated by people from the humanities and social sciences. I think these are really important discussions, and I’m glad to be a part of them.

For me, these discussions often become a bit uncomfortable when we start talking about STEM. Usually, these discussions start with some comment about the difficulties of incorporating these discussions into the STEM classroom, and responses tend to vary anywhere from an insistence that these topics permeate any discussion to mild (or not so mild) indignation that STEM people don’t seem to care about these issues.

As someone with an undergraduate degree in STEM, and as someone who has spent some time teaching STEM topics, I can’t help but feel a bit defensive in these discussions. I think there are parts of this discussion that are indeed true: I do think that STEM people, on average, do not think about these issues in their daily lives and work quite as much as their non-STEM peers.

That said, I think that non-STEM people tend to forget that there may be significant periods in STEM classrooms where we are literally not talking about people. When I taught about deriving the formula for a correlation, I wasn’t talking about people. When I sat in a classroom and learned SQL, we weren’t talking about people. We were talking about databases and pivot tables. What were the tables in the data about? Many times, not people. (Throughout the duration of my education, I’ve worked with a surprising number of datasets about different kinds of boats.)

Even when we are talking about people, there are often ways in which issues of race or gender or class are not immediately applicable. I’ve had by DNA put through gel electrophoresis on multiple occasions to assess characteristics of my human DNA, but no, I don’t think there was any reason to discuss those types of issues in that moment. At some point in my education? Sure. In that moment or even in that particular class space? Debatable.

There are subtle ways to incorporate critical reflection into the classroom, yes. I myself have made mention of the limitations of using dichotomous indicators for measuring gender identity. However, I feel that as a function of the subject matter, responsibility for STEM educators to use critical teaching is different. Not lessened. Just different.

Where this kind of thinking does fit more universally is in considering the classroom environment. Many STEM fields have traditionally been dominated by white, class-advantaged, heterosexual men. So there are many ways in which the system, as it stands, still systematically excludes marginalized populations from STEM and, as one mechanism, creates uncomfortable and sometimes harmful classroom environments. It’s at this juncture that I think STEM educators need to be most in touch with critical pedagogies. STEM educators have a responsibility to understand how the dynamics they develop in their classrooms and the systems in which they participate contribute, often, to the disparities we see in terms of the participation of othered people in the field. With this, STEM educators have a responsibility to be open to and learn alternative ways of creating learning and living environments that are cognizant of the power in the room.

That all said, I do wish that discussions of critical pedagogy and content  would be more open to the idea that no, all of our respective academic spaces are not the same. No, the concepts we are talking about do not apply in the same ways across disciplines. If we are going to develop ways to create an educational world that is, across the board, reflective of the justice we seek, being sensitive to the variety of ways knowledge is legitimately created is just a practical reality.

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