Rethinking Equity Within the Liberal Arts Tradition of Science Pedagogy

by Bryan Dewsbury

The national conversation on equity and pedagogical transformation in science is typically driven by data showing woeful outcome gaps between different demographic groups. The narrative often begins by citing the fact that white, continuing-generation (CG) students fare better in most science academic metrics such as success in and after gateway courses, and four-year graduation rates (Riegle-Crumb et al. 2019). On the contrary, students from historically marginalized identities (HMI) are statistically shown to be ploughing through an academic ecosystem that is yet to figure out how to best serve their needs. Decades ago, the blame for this was placed squarely on the shoulders of the students, as being ill-prepared for the rigors of college life. Thankfully, much of that deficit language has been diminished, and many institutions of higher education are taking greater responsibility for creating an environment that promotes successful outcomes.

While this evolution is laudable, there are issues with outcomes-based thinking that results in a narrow interpretation of the problems and thus limiting the solutions that are necessary. The science education community organizes its efforts around ‘closing gaps’ with somewhat of an implicit assumption that the structure of the science curricula itself only requires tweaks. If we take a more circumspect view of the relationship between science and society however, we will quickly recognize that the science’s issues extend well beyond outcome gaps. Several examples belie this reality, including the decline of public trust in science, and the non-cognitive reasons why undergraduates, particularly HMI students leave science majors. Therefore, if curricula transformation only focuses on building ‘ability’, then we might miss an important opportunity to rethink how the humanistic element of pedagogy, makes science teaching inherently more powerful and inclusive.

Blaich et al (2004) articulates a definition of liberal arts education that among other things emphasize the importance of the interactions among students and between students and faculty as key stakeholders in the education process. I focus on this element of the definition as it identifies a construct in pedagogical practice that is agnostic to discipline, and typically is what science teaching practitioners struggle with the most. Understanding the powerful role these interactions can play in constructing equitable classrooms however can be key to how we think about equity on our campuses in general. Unfortunately, elements of the science teaching culture work against this belief. Science, particularly in the post-enlightenment era was remarkably successful in advocating falsifiability and the hypothetico-deductive method as the only approaches to understanding the world (Rabanal 2021). Humanity owes a debt of gratitude to this process for much of its technical and physical progress, but examples exist where the downplaying of human biases and fallibility led to this process yielding unfortunate outcomes (example Brandt 1978). In the classroom, science teaching differentiated itself from its counterparts in the humanities in the belief that science was filled with relatively indisputable dogmas or processes that only lead to a narrow set of answers. Science teaching methods, even the more engaging ones that evolved over the past two decades still largely privileged the development of intellectual expertise over the students’ own cultivation of meaning and purpose. I aim in this essay not to be dismissive of the content-oriented functions of the classroom, but to recenter the importance of the human interactions that form a core component of the liberal arts tradition, provide suggestions for our practice and explain why it is crucial for equitable outcomes in science.

Teaching students
In an ethnography published in Reading Quarterly Moje (1996) talks about the notion of ‘teaching students, not subjects. The study describes the ways in which relationships in the secondary school chemistry classroom of a teacher drove decisions about the use of literacy strategies. This quote in essence captures the spirit of human interactions in teaching. Most college science teachers were raised in a graduate training environment that centered their content expertise as the core of their professional identity. Graduate training culture, the paucity of opportunities to intentionally cultivate teaching skills, and the lack of respect sometimes paid to such endeavors is mostly to blame for the content-focused culture of science teaching. Teaching students however forces the practitioner to prioritize the cultivation of relationships and trust as key elements that drive and continuously inform how the classroom environment is constructed. The social context of students’ backgrounds matter in terms of the ‘funds of knowledge’ (Yosso 2005) they bring to the classroom, and the barriers they navigated (and sometimes continue to) to be fully present. Discretizing the student experience simply into a semester-long time stamp, and, assuming that the classroom experience is based only on coverage and content delivery robs students of their agency. When the instructor considers the relationship-building component of the process, elements of the human experience come to the forefront of curriculum planning and raises crucial questions such as
1. How have the social and academic experiences of the students shaped them, and in what are the ways in which that shaping may impact their engagement in the course?
2. What knowledge do I (the instructor) have about the diverse socioeconomic experiences of US and international students?
3. In what ways do my own (the instructor’s) social positioning impact the role they play in cultivating authentic relationships and the degree to which they can be empathetic to students?
The answers to these questions require engaging both the academic scholarship that has carefully articulated the US social experiment over its history and the practitioner’s own reflection on how that history impacted their own social positioning. Both of these should be fundamental elements of any professional preparation for the college classroom and the continued professional development that occur during its practice.

Ethically problematic science
The importance of the human interactions articulated in the liberal arts tradition is not limited to the classroom experience. Science has been a force for human progress, but its engagement with humanity and inquiry is filled with ethically problematic examples. Historical events such as the Tuskegee Study, the eugenics movement (Hyatt 1997), and Henrietta Lacks’ experience (Truog et al. 2012) are sometimes posited as fluke events in an otherwise unidirectional social march toward human improvement. Pedagogically however, reflecting on these examples provide opportunities to center the importance of human interaction in scientific practice. It may not have been that the practice of science set out to be intentionally racist, but science, (like most other components of academia) lay subservient to the social order of the day. That meant that those with access to the spaces that provided them the opportunity to practice science were likely to be from the socially dominant group. The existence of these and other horrific examples of scientific racism should come at no surprise then, since they were by-and-large consequential to a stratification system that would ultimately privilege racist ideas. How can these and other incidents be pedagogically instructive in the present day? One only needs to look at very disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on marginalized groups in terms of infections and death rate to see that ‘race’ (socially constructed) still very much matters (Gaynor and Wilson 2020).

In the science classroom, there should be explicit messaging about the fact that scientific inquiry and solutions are shaped by psychosocial externalities, that, if not fully understood can limit the potential of its impact. How might the students in our science classroom today think differently when they matriculate into running their research labs, oversee patients, and pursue socially relevant questions regardless of career choice? If the features of this thinking are not intentionally engaged in the science classroom, are we to assume that a humanistic approach would be automatically infused into their practice? A liberal arts approach to scientific teaching centers equity in science practice because there is an understanding that this practice is only equitable if the humanity of those with whom the practice interacts is explicitly considered.

An outward facing STEM pedagogy
Public trust in science has fallen significantly in the last decade (Huber et al. 2019). There are dangerous potential consequences to this. To achieve the herd immunity and vaccination penetrance needed to slow the COVID19 pandemic for example, public officials needed to overcome deeply held skeptical beliefs a significant amount of people have about the effectiveness and non-lethality of vaccines. To those in the scientific community bubble, the resistance can be perplexing and even infuriating. However, the ‘trust gap’ between scientists and a wary public point to an equity issue that a liberal arts approach to STEM pedagogy can more meaningfully address. The scientific technocracy has evolved around an almost unbendable set of rules pertaining to falsifiability, and ways in which hypotheses are constructed and tested. Its rigorous application has certainly allowed us to better understand the world, but it doesn’t seamlessly transfer into how a non-specialist might organize their interpretation of reality. Uncertainty might be automatically understood to a technocrat of a scientific discipline as a harbinger of the process, but at-large members of society often orient their views around unshakeable ideologies and sacred cows not even Popperian approaches can breach. To question beliefs over issues like climate change and vaccinations, is in some cases tantamount to challenging the very essence of how an individual might identify and construe their self-worth. If scientist and science pedagogy continue to treat social issues and problems as purely technical matters, they risk alienating the very public who need engaging. When science is taught in the classroom, how is uncertainty addressed both as a measurement and as an emotional conundrum? How does that latter shape the ways in which people engage in decision-making, particularly as it pertains to social outcomes? If science is to posit itself as a force for equity, then the cultivation of scientists should include skills associated with communicating with humanity beyond disciplinary bubbles.

At its core, the pursuit of equity in higher education is not wholly dissimilar from pursuing equity in wider society. Higher education has a unique context and an opportunity to shape the equity conversation in powerful ways. To do so, our understanding of equity has to include yet transcend the experiences of singular groups, as unfortunate as those experiences may be, and center on the more powerful construct of humanism at the core of the classroom experience. The liberal arts tradition brings this into focus through its elevation of interactions as not a by-product, but a feature of what it means to truly educate. A full engagement with this calls for a deeper understanding of connection in both its collective and intimate classroom forms. It is our understanding of this connection as practitioners that will allow us to, along with our students, craft meaningful, purposeful and equitable futures.

Blaich, C., Bost, A., Chan, E., and Lynch, R., 2004. Defining liberal arts education. Unpublished manuscript.

Brandt, A.M., 1978. Racism and research: the case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Hastings center report, pp.21-29.

Gaynor, T.S. and Wilson, M.E., 2020. Social vulnerability and equity: The disproportionate impact of COVID‐19. Public administration review, 80(5), pp.832-838.

Huber, B., Barnidge, M., Gil de Zúñiga, H. and Liu, J., 2019. Fostering public trust in science: The role of social media. Public understanding of science, 28(7), pp.759-777.

Hyatt, S., 1997. A shared history of shame: Sweden’s four-decade policy of forced sterilization and the eugenics movement in the United States. Ind. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev., 8, p.475.

Moje, E.B., 1996. “I teach students, not subjects”: Teacher‐student relationships as contexts for secondary literacy. Reading research quarterly, 31(2), pp.172-195.

Rabanal, A.P., 2021. Scientism after its Discontents. Mεtascience, 2.

Riegle-Crumb, C., King, B. and Irizarry, Y., 2019. Does STEM stand out? Examining racial/ethnic gaps in persistence across postsecondary fields. Educational Researcher, 48(3), pp.133-144.

Truog, R.D., Kesselheim, A.S. and Joffe, S., 2012. Paying patients for their tissue: The legacy of Henrietta Lacks. Science, 337(6090), pp.37-38.

Yosso*, T.J., 2005. Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race ethnicity and education, 8(1), pp.69-91.

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