College professors across the US are using social justice and advocacy initiatives to get students excited and inspired about their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classes. These projects also give students the intellectual, experimental, and communication skills recommended by ACS guidelines for 2-year and 4-year colleges.
“[These initiatives] exemplify the aspirational goal in the ethics section of the ACS guidelines for 2-year colleges, which asks programs to ‘serve the public interest and actively protect the health and safety of co-workers, consumers, and the community,’ ” says Michelle Brooks, assistant director at the ACS Office of Higher Education.
“Students love it. They want to be more engaged civically,” says Sonya Doucette, a chemistry and oceanography professor at Bellevue College. “They just don’t know how.”
Doucette, together with Heather Price, a chemistry professor at North Seattle College, won US National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for the Climate Justice in Undergraduate STEM: Incorporating Civic Engagement initiative. The initiative will help faculty create course content on the science of climate and environmental change and the effects on communities.
Price engaged her students by helping them explore ways to construct air filters using box fans during a smoky fire season with unusually high levels of air pollution. Students installed particulate matter sensors in various buildings on campus to track indoor air quality as smoke worsened, and they tested various setups to see which best filtered air.
When Price teaches about real-world climate change impacts, she notes how they can disproportionately harm marginalized groups. She says these lessons help her include an equity ethic—principled concerns for social justice—in higher education.
Classes with an equity ethic “give students a feeling of purpose for what they’re learning, that they’re not going to just be going into the corporate world for the money but that they can actually do something that connects with their community and that helps their community,” she says.
Price and Doucette surveyed their students before and after their climate justice coursework. They found that students felt more able to help their communities after taking these classes.
Price adds that it’s not enough to show students the science behind climate change. They also need to be taught how to address it in their own communities.
“A doctor would never just give me test results and walk away, right?” she says. “They’re going to give you the test results, the science, and then they’re going to also give you . . . the information that you need to then repair and heal and fix the problem.”
While the NSF funding is specific to STEM, Doucette and Price have used what they’ve learned to champion efforts to incorporate civic engagement in classwork across their institutions.
Teaching students about advocacy is an important part of the ACS Approval Program, a program that promotes excellence in chemistry education for undergraduate students through approval of baccalaureate chemistry programs. The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania runs an annual Day on the Hill event at the Pennsylvania State Capitol that allows student lobbyists to meet politicians.
This event helped chemistry and biochemistry professor Loyd Bastin realize how relatively easy it is to meet with state lawmakers. Bastin works at Widener University, which has an ACS-approved chemistry program.
“I got to thinking, We need scientists who will do that [type of advocacy],” Bastin says.
Bastin prepares students in his chemistry courses for the Day on the Hill event. They each summarize a bill that interests them and present it in class. The students then collectively decide which bills to pursue. After researching, they create a white paper with a bulleted summary and supporting evidence for the bill. They also ask fellow students for feedback and gather postcards with messages in support of a bill. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the students hand deliver the materials to the congressional representatives of the postcard writers and their own districts.
Bastin’s students have advocated for legislation like a bill that would provide funding for cleaning up abandoned coal mines and community greening and beautification in urban areas, among other provisions. Students brainstormed suggestions for funding the bill, including a plastic bag tax, and presented them to their congressional representatives.
STEM students and professionals are uniquely positioned to guide lawmakers: “We can talk about environmental issues, inform legislatures, educate them, and maybe offer some knowledge about the science behind certain bills,” Bastin says.
A version of this article was previously published on the ACS website: cenm.ag/climatejusticecurricula.