Cultivating an Equity-Focused Classroom

Nov. 1, 2021

Microbes contribute essential biochemical activities to their respective environments and are integrally connected to human and environmental health.  Yet science curricula have not harnessed these connections in ways that promote inclusivity and social justice. As Beronda Montgomery eloquently puts it, we can learn a lot about equity from unculturable bacteria. Microbiologists have a limitless commitment to understanding microbes, even the unculturable ones. What if educators approached understanding the conditions that promote equity in science as microbiologists approach the conditions that promote growth of unculturable bacteria? Educators could rethink assumptions about optimal academic environments the same way experimentalists test bacterial medium conditions. Here, the application of backward design for integration of social justice in science curricula is presented as an approach to create inclusive classrooms.

Science curricula must be re-envisioned through the lens of social equity in order to address the challenges faced by an increasingly diverse and socially conscious generation. Social inequities have been highlighted in recent years by blatant systemic violence against Black bodies, health disparities experienced by marginalized peoples due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating effects of the climate crisis. Science educators have a timely opportunity to reimagine science curricula through topics, historical context and breadth of perspectives. Incorporating equity topics that matter to historically marginalized students cultivates their agency to address challenges in their communities, promoting social transformation through science curriculum.

Use Backward Design to Incorporate Social Equity Learning Goals

Backward design is a curricular design approach that starts with identifying  learning outcomes, defining assessments as evidence of learning, and finally designing  supporting learning experiences. Backward design is useful when integrating social equity in science curriculum because instructors identify goals and design lessons that prioritize concepts of social equity. Since backward design prioritizes the learner, educators using it would begin by identifying student-centered learning outcomes.

Congruence between students’ cultural and science social identities is important in retention of students from marginalized communities. In this case, a social equity-minded learning outcome could be: “students will connect their lived experiences to the application of science.” Evidence of this outcome could be formulation of research questions that address issues in the students’ communities. The learning experience could be instruction on scientific literature research methodology on the topic, critical analysis of the literature, or other skills that would facilitate the outcome. Assessments can take many forms, including traditional written assignments or interdisciplinary creative projects that allow students to showcase their strengths. Students then demonstrate critical and enduring understanding of the concept with proper scaffolding and clear articulation of expectations through transparent rubrics. Backward design is an effective tool for science curricula instructional design and student engagement.

Build Social Equity Themes Into Science Lessons

Backward design dictates starting with desired outcomes. Educators must identify the enduring concept about social equity first so that the inclusion of these examples is meaningfully connected to learning outcomes. Successful implementation of social equity in science demands interdisciplinary approaches. Educators can lean on the social sciences to formulate effective ways of challenging students to engage in critical analysis of how science contributes to social inequities and vice versa. Online resources can help connect social justice and science in addition to science education research that focus on it. Unfortunately, there are many opportunities to incorporate examples of social and racial injustice. The most infamous example is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted between 1932-1972 on African American men in Alabama just to watch what would happen if the disease was left untreated.

Build Ethical Considerations Into Learning Outcomes

Essential to these discussions is the examination of the ethical consequences of scientific progress. Science is not neutral. The types of questions asked and how the data are collected and interpreted depend on who is doing the research. Therefore, in order to prevent exploitation of marginalized communities, scientists must welcome and ensure those marginalized voices are heard. For example, genetics studies such as Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) could once again lead to unethical scientific questions if the effects of their results are not weighed against the harm they can bring to the marginalized group being studied. The same-sex behavior GWAS study conducted in 2019 aimed to identify genetic determinants of sexual behavior, yet it disregarded the social and historical context of study participants. The potential harm brought upon members of gender and sexual marginalized groups from the interpretation of the results must be explicit in the discussion of these studies.

Similarly, with the proliferation of human microbiome research, ethical questions will arise, especially when scientific research involves native peoples. If scientists are to learn from their microbiomes, native peoples need to be integrated into the conception, ownership and application of the work. Human microbiome research can also help students analyze the role colonialism played on Indigenous health through the alteration of Indigenous microbiomes. These online resources can help educators engage students in bioethics discussion, model social responsibility and demonstrate the importance of social equity in the pursuit of science.

Microbial research will continue to probe the connection between humans and their environments, and science educators have a golden opportunity to demonstrate to students the intrinsic link between scientific discovery and its effects on society.

Science faculty can participate by embracing student-centered pedagogical practices and infusing curricula with topics relevant to students’ lives. By taking these steps, educators will be able to not only engage in scientific progress, but also call out the instances when science was used to reinforce social injustice.

The Microbes and Social Equity (MSE) work group, made up of microbiologists, social scientists and practitioners, seeks to provide a platform for incubation and dissemination of science curricula that considers the social implications of microbial research by integrating the social sciences through transdisciplinary pedagogy. MSE's approach challenges scientists to reexamine microbiology research’s position in society from a justice-centered perspective. Educators can incorporate MSE's perspective to help them bring the recommendations outlined above to the classroom.

Author: Carla Y. Bonilla, Ph.D.

Carla Y. Bonilla, Ph.D.
Carla Y. Bonilla, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biology at the University of San Diego.