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Civic Engagement in the STEM Classroom

The start of the fall semester feels a lot different this year. Campuses are uncharacteristically quiet with no kickoff events or football games as Covid-19 is causing many schools to transition to virtual/distance learning. But that doesn’t change the fact that 2020 is a national election year in the United States, which means that schools are abuzz with political activism. Get-out-the-vote campaigns, speeches by candidates, and issues-centered debates all encourage students to be a part of the democratic process and fulfill their civic responsibilities.

Even the classrooms themselves are turning into spheres of civic engagement. In many humanities and social science majors, students are focused on the relationship between their fields and policy and politics. They are urged to get involved with their local communities and are invited into the national discourse as they connect their classroom learning to real-world applications. Yet science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) departments often remain excluded from the surge of civic engagement. This means a significant fraction of young citizens are left out of the national dialogue. According to Tufts University’s biennial National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, in the 2016 US presidential election only 43.6% of STEM students voted compared to 53.2% of social science students. Breaking these statistics down further reveals that students in engineering and mathematics majors had only a 35% voting rate. 

Why the huge disparity? One theory is that departments and disciplines “convey to students’ particular values and ethics, such as the importance of civic and political engagement.” Therefore, students’ motivation to vote is impacted by the messages presented by faculty, other laboratory researchers, and peers in their fields. Most STEM departments do not incentivize activism by faculty, research staff, or students; the STEM culture and learning environment do not provide the same encouragement, opportunity, and support for civic engagement and discourse as their liberal arts counterparts.

Recent events in America have made clear the dangers of removing scientists and experts from the political conversation. During the coronavirus pandemic, Americans witnessed first-hand the consequences of elected officials and institutions shunning scientific evidence and dismissing the scientific and experimental process. This has emphasized just how essential science and scientists are to policy-making.

STEM curriculums need to prepare their students for future careers in which they will be active and engaged citizens advocating for science and shaping how research is ultimately applied in communities. Because voluntary and required community service are strong predictors of future voting, science and engineering departments can motivate democratic participation by including it in their curriculums. Students, alongside post-docs and early career faculty, should be encouraged to actively engage locally on issues connected to their studies. Outreach events allow researchers to share their work with the public, improve scientific literacy, and positively impact their communities. Volunteering with local community organizations can prompt student reflection on how their education and lab research can impact social change. Project-based learning in the local campus area allow students to practice the scientific method and apply learned skills while exploring topics of interest and giving back to their community. Experiential learning also leads to students having greater appreciation for the broad relevance and applicability of their studies and research to real world affairs.

A secondary benefit of community engagement is that STEM students and young researchers will enrich their science communication skills. Explaining their research to people of all ages and backgrounds is critical in achieving greater scientific literacy in our nation. Practicing science communication will better prepare these students and lab staff for STEM careers within and outside of academia and will prepare them to navigate conversations on politicized science topics such as climate change, artificial intelligence, and mental health care access.

Relative to students of other majors, it is also more difficult for STEM students to recognize how their discipline relates to politics or government. Developing an understanding of government function and political issues and how they connect to students’ fields of study should be a learning objective of STEM majors. Classes should have conversations about ethical dilemmas that exist in their field. Departments and student organizations should arrange discussions of ballot issues and community matters that specifically relate to STEM topics. 

Students should also understand how tax-payer dollars support research in the United States since budgetary priorities set by elected officials shape the direction of research and inform which scientific initiatives receive funding. Faculty, lab staff, and administration must normalize staying informed of current scientific news and understanding how bills at the federal, state, and local level impact scientific research. Professors and post-docs should demonstrate the process of applying for federal grants for undergraduate students as a learning opportunity. Incorporating these topics into the curriculum will boost student voter turnout rates as increased civic knowledge also directly correlates to increased voting.

Lastly, a civically-engaged education would be incomplete without also prompting student reflection of their role as researchers and academics in society. It is important that STEM students have the sometimes uncomfortable conversations of social identities, power, and privilege in STEM majors, higher education, and society. Students and faculty need to participate in bias training and learn how bias and discrimination manifests in the classroom and research laboratories. Students’ personal reflections on their community engaged work is necessary for their growth as global citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic is requiring Americans to reevaluate our entire educational system and the future of colleges and universities. Therefore, it is vital that all students’ interests are adequately represented by elected officials. From the US President to a college’s board of trustees; the choices made at every level of government will impact students’ education, lives, and careers. 

Successful STEM education cannot just be about teaching the theory and techniques. Students need to learn to think beyond the lab and consider their role within the global society. STEM individuals must engage in our democracy because research funding is driven by political policy, government interventions are driven by scientific research, and legislative and bureaucratic processes are driven by public perception. Encouraging STEM researchers to participate in outreach, service learning, ethics discussions, and identity reflection will motivate STEM voter turnout and ultimately increase the representation of science in our government.

Featured image is under Pixabay License and free to use.

About the Author
  • Elana Goldenkoff 0000-0003-0874-0997

    I am a PhD student in Kinesiology at the University of Michigan.My research explores how non-invasive brain stimulation can alter neural plasticity and help with rehabilitation for motor control disorders. Outside of the lab, I participate in science outreach programs for elementary school students with the goal of increasing future diversity in STEM fields and promoting scientific literacy in the community.

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