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April 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 7

Teaching Beyond the Single Story of STEM

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Let’s stop romanticizing STEM as “the” solution to our world’s problems.

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An illustration of a microscope broken into pieces over a yellow background.
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As educators and school leaders, supporting youth to “save the world” begins by replacing the single story of STEM as the solution with the reality that STEM also contributes to the world’s problems. That single story of STEM as the solution dominates public discourse and public schooling. But we believe that educators must move beyond simplistic narratives of STEM to engage students in more complex analysis and action. Through integrated and transdisciplinary teaching, we give youth a fighting chance of meeting the very real global challenges we have created for them.
A recent series of U.S. Dell technology commercials illustrates the single story of STEM. In the Dell ads, the Great Barrier Reef appears in vivid color as orchestral music rises, arousing inexplicable optimism. In these ads, scientists and vacationers alike are seen uploading digital images of the reef to a Dell Edge Server where, aided by artificial intelligence, the seventh wonder of the world is monitored and protected. The voiceover then explains that human activity (whether by researcher or tourist), powered by mass data processing at top speeds, helps “life underwater flourish.” What is left unsaid in Dell’s simplistic narrative of STEM is that the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is human activity (e.g., rising water temperatures from climate change; fishing and coastal development; and poor water quality from land-based pollution). In short, human activity amplified by human greed and facilitated by advances in ­technology create the very conditions from which the Great Barrier Reef now needs saving.
As former engineers and STEM secondary teachers, now teacher-educators, we know that the relationship between STEM-based innovation and human or planetary salvation requires much deeper treatment in our classrooms than any 90-second advertisement can convey. At the heart of this deep treatment lies a paradox—i.e., problems of human activity are expected to be solved by more STEM-related human activity—that youth and teachers must problematize and make sense of together. We say this knowing that STEM teaching has a significant role to play in nurturing students’ civic engagement, and that the problems of the world—climate catastrophe, democratic unrest, racial unrest, famine—cannot be reduced to technical solutions of speed, data processing, or analytics. Our aim is to make clear why “saving the world” through STEM must take seriously the social, environmental, economic, and political reach of STEM innovations and inquiry. Integrated and trans­disciplinary STEM teaching is the first step toward this vision of deeper, more honest, and ­consequential learning in schools.

Unromanticized and Integrated STEM Teaching

Pre-service and practicing teachers often tell us that teaching STEM as the solution gives students a sense of empowerment that motivates them toward STEM careers. But novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s (2009) warning about the dangers of a single story—referring to the harm that comes from describing groups of people in monolithic ways—is instructive in this regard. Curriculum that simplifies and romanticizes STEM as the solution occludes opportunities for students to engage in complex and nuanced learning about socio-scientific global problems that actually show the reach and limits of STEM innovation and inquiry. This is as important for youths’ civic futures as it is for their STEM-related professional futures. Teaching that integrates STEM disciplines (despite their siloing in schools) can help counter simplistic curricular narratives of STEM.

STEM teachers who look to disciplines like anthropology, history, and sociology can offer more nuanced perspectives on STEM disciplines.

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For example, returning to the Dell advertisements, a conventional computer science lesson might introduce AI as a tool of environmental preservation. An unromanticized and integrated approach would also introduce students to the environmental and social impact of data centers, on which AI technologies rely. Data centers and the cooling systems within them are resource-hungry enterprises that use billions of gallons of water a year and account for an estimated 1 percent of global energy consumption (Kalejs, 2022). U.S. data centers are often located in arid regions experiencing prolonged droughts. As tech mega-corporations build more data centers to meet increasing demands, financially vulnerable cities are forced to choose between the economic incentives of hosting them and the immense loss of precious natural and energy resources (Solon, 2021). Analyzing the environmental and societal footprint of data centers, balanced against the promise of AI technologies, requires a blending of STEM disciplines, comprising computer science, chemistry, ecology, and mathematics. Moreover, this interdisciplinary approach replaces the single story of AI with an honest, nuanced, and complex perspective. This matters not only for inspiring ­students to consider future STEM careers but also for preparing them more generally to be ­scientifically and technologically literate ­citizens.

To “Save the World,” We Need Transdisciplinary Perspectives in STEM

In addition to teaching that integrates the disciplines of STEM, we see power in transdisciplinary teaching—where STEM critically engages with the humanities and social sciences—to provide a structure for students to explore socio-­scientifically created inequality. The wider aperture of transdisciplinary teaching helps students see past local and global problems as having technical solutions to instead see where STEM intersects with questions of human dignity, rights, and futures.
Consider, for example, how gender and sex are taught and often distinguished from one another. The constructs of “sex” and “gender”—whether in biology or gender studies—are often distinguished as belonging to the domain of science (sex) or to the domain of the social (gender), where the latter is contrasted from the former as a social construction. In biology, sex is most often taught as a simple binary fact of physiology (female versus male). This occurs despite the continued lack of scientific consensus. As developmental biologist and science journalist Claire Ainsworth (2015) explained, scientific advances speak to a diversity in sex beyond the male/female binary. While sex might manifest anatomically, variation in sex exists not only at the genetic level (i.e., beyond XX and XY ­chromosomes), but also at the cellular and hormonal levels. These varying indicators do not align consistently along the binary that middle or high school biology would have students believe in. This raises the question: why not teach sex as a ­scientific construction just as gender is taught as a social construction?
In speaking with veteran STEM teachers, we hear them voice concerns that an honest, nuanced, and complex approach to science would blur what distinguishes it from the humanities or social sciences, because STEM fields are defined by provable facts, immune to bias, and true across time and place. What this argument misses is that the bid for a STEM discipline to stand apart from its constructed nature, from other disciplines, or from what it means to society, fails to tell the whole story of STEM and how scientifically constructed ideas can contribute to problems. STEM teachers who look to disciplines like anthropology, history, and sociology can offer more nuanced perspectives on STEM disciplines. Through transdisciplinary teaching, students would see sex and gender, for example, as having shape-shifted in meaning across time, place, and discipline, but also as part of a larger complex reality of human and ecological diversity. As education anthropologist Ray McDermott (1993) argued, differences (e.g., learning differences) among people are characterized as deficit, delinquent, or abnormal in schools and society when in fact, they are fundamental to the human condition, just as ecologists would argue about ecosystems. When students are exposed to socio-scientifically constructed inequality, they can begin to unpack the relationship between STEM and a civic future that secures the rights, dignity, and full participation of all. Transdisciplinary teaching that normalizes difference carries the power to unmake a world in which variations (e.g., in sex, in gender) are too often used as a basis for denying people’s full humanity.

To “Save Us,” STEM Must Engage Learners’ Histories and Identities

Whether teachers integrate STEM disciplines or engage in transdisciplinary teaching, the power of STEM to “save the world” begins and ends with teachers’ relationships to students. If K–12 schools move toward interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary STEM teaching, we anticipate such shifts will also invite teachers into a deeper understanding of the histories and identities of their students, families, and communities; their own identities and histories; and what these histories and identities mean in the context of STEM teaching that supports students in analyzing and acting toward just futures.

The power of STEM to “save the world” begins and ends with teachers’ relationships to students.

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In mathematics education, there are ample cases of teachers supporting students to integrate mathematical and critical social analysis around issues like gentrification, immigration, and gender oppression. Such approaches deepen disciplinary engagement for students while also often eliciting strong reactions from them as they grapple with history, identity, place, and futures. For teachers, this can be new (and potentially scary) pedagogical terrain. Rather than deny or minimize it, however, we must take on the emotional work with students that is embedded in socio-scientific, socio-mathematical, and socio-technical problems, because this emotional work is precisely what social change through STEM requires of us.
Rubel and colleagues’ (2016) inquiry-based unit Local Lotto, for example, illustrates the pedagogical challenges that emerge when addressing socio­political issues in a mathematics classroom. The mostly white and Asian teacher-researcher team designed a unit for ­students to engage with digital technologies (Geographic Information System mapping) and fieldwork (interviews and observations at local bodegas) to think critically about the state lottery. The students were predominantly Black and enrolled in the remedial math track at their high school. Over six lessons, students conducted a structural and spatial analysis of the lottery that was both mathematical and humanistic. Students’ inquiries surfaced socio-economic tensions in the lottery’s structure through GIS mapping of ticket sales in low-income and racially minoritized communities and the voices of people who bought tickets as an act of hope in the face of financial struggle.
Can a math unit “save” people from the predatory practices of a city? No. But it can create the conditions by which students and educators wrangle with what it means to explore the humanistic and mathematical dimensions of public policy, neighborhood commerce, and family practices. This example represents both the power of transdisciplinary approaches to STEM—where political economy and public policy meet mathematics inquiry—and the heightened emotional and relational work it rightly requires of teachers and students. Other examples of transdisciplinary teaching include an elementary science unit on water justice in light of the Flint water crisis (Davis & Schaeffer, 2020); a group of high school chemistry teachers developing a unit on urban heavy metal contamination with youth, university scientists, and community organizers (Morales-Doyle, Childress Price, & Chappell, 2019); and a biology teacher in a summer science program engaging underserved students in a community health investigation (Visintainer, 2023).
Taking on problems that can “save the world” in classrooms ultimately draws in our students’ whole selves and even the communities they care about. As educators, we shouldn’t shy away from the socio-political or potentially controversial nature of STEM inquiry. Teaching that denies the messy reality of how STEM analysis elucidates the world is a far worse political act—an act that undermines students’ civic engagement through STEM. In fact, what “saving the world” through STEM needs most, perhaps, are teachers who reflect on themselves and their ­practices in ways that reckon with the lines of social difference (e.g., race, class, and gender) that otherwise conspire to separate them from understanding and ­anticipating their students’ needs.

STEM May Not Save Us, But Collective Human Action Can

In his book Pluriversal Politics, Escobar (2020) considers what it would take for us, as a society, to address the most pressing issues of our time—such as the climate crisis. He invokes a quote often attributed to Einstein: “We cannot resolve the problems of one era using the same mental frame that created them.” If we are asking ourselves, “Can STEM save the world?,” we must also ask what part STEM plays (past, present, and future) in ­creating the problems we need to be saved from. Doing more STEM as it has been done in the past will not “save the world,” and having the humility to know that is an important first step. What we need instead is a system of STEM education that involves integrated and trans­disciplinary teaching to disrupt the simple narratives that keep us from seeing complex solutions.
The problems from which we need saving are growing exponentially in their complexity and interconnectedness. Students will need deep STEM knowledge and skills and—perhaps more important—they will need to learn to be in dialogue with peers and teachers who are similarly passionate about global challenges, but who have different perspectives and different forms of expertise. Such exchange across differences is the best hope for our students, the next generation of civic participants, to “save the world.” STEM may not save us, but collective human action can.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ The relationship between STEM innovation and its impact on the planet requires much deeper treatment in our classrooms, the authors note. How might you work with students to explore this?

➛ What steps could you take to move toward more transdisciplinary STEM teaching in your school or district?

References

Adichie, C. N. (2009, July). The danger of a single story. [Video]. TED Conferences.

Ainsworth, C. (2015). Sex redefined. Nature, 518(7539), 288–291.

Davis, N. R., & Schaeffer, J. (2020). Troubling troubled waters in elementary science education: Politics, ethics & black children’s conceptions of water [justice] in the era of flint. In STEM and the Social Good (pp. 91–113). Routledge.

Escobar, A. (2020). Pluriversal politics: The real and the possible (D. Frye, Trans.). Duke University Press.

Kalejs, E. (2022, October 31). How immersive liquid cooling and AI are turning data centers green. AI for Good.

McDermott, R. (1993). The acquisition of a child by a learning disability. In S. Chaiklin & J. Lave (Eds.), Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context (pp. 269–305). Cambridge University Press.

Morales‐Doyle, D., Childress Price, T., & Chappell, M. J. (2019). Chemicals are contaminants too: Teaching appreciation and critique of science in the era of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Science Education, 103(6), 1347–1366.

Rubel, L. H., Lim, V. Y., Hall-Wieckert, M., & Sullivan, M. (2016). Teaching mathematics for spatial justice: An investigation of the lottery. Cognition and Instruction, 34(1), 1–26.

Solon, O. (2019, June 19). Drought-stricken communities push back against data centers. NBC News.

Visintainer, T. (2023). Teaching health justice and reimagining narratives of place through community‐driven science practices. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 60(8), 1817–1852.

End Notes

1 For the purposes of this article alone, “interdisciplinary” refers to the integration of multiple STEM disciplines, while “transdisciplinary” refers to the integration of STEM disciplines with critical perspectives in the humanities or social sciences. We see the latter as necessary for students to more robustly engage with questions of socio-scientifically created inequality and its impacts on society and the world.

Tesha Sengupta-Irving is an associate professor of Learning Sciences and STEM Education at the UC Berkeley School of Education. Her research examines the sociocultural and political dimensions of mathematics learning.

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