Magazine Feature

Just Science

Bring social justice into the science lab. It’s easier than you think.
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Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

When Dana McCullough, a biology teacher at Evans High School in Georgia, walked into her assistant principal’s office to talk about Henrietta Lacks, she got a response she laughs about now: “L is not in my section of the alphabet. You’ll have to talk to Mr. Hooper.”

It was an easy misunderstanding. Even armed with two biology degrees, McCullough hadn’t known about the woman behind the immortal HeLa cell line used to test the first polio vaccine until she stumbled across Lacks’ story in a doctoral course.

After that first meeting in the school office, Lacks became a way for science students at Evans to move from learning about genes to spreading their knowledge of the social justice issues surrounding medical research. “It’s what we call a hidden curriculum,” says McCullough. The additional learning comes from students’ own questions and critical thinking.

Throughout the year, McCullough’s biology students read excerpts from Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and dig deeper into the realities of Lacks’ life: Did the fact that she was black and poor affect her level of care? What laws governed the use of cells harvested from unknowing donors in the 1950s?

“What I want them to see is that these cells were not created in a lab,” says McCullough. “They came from a real woman with a real family. It opens the door for conversation.”

In 2011, McCullough’s students decided to go further. Partnering with the school’s Multicultural Club, they launched an annual Henrietta Lacks Day. Students wore ribbons to indicate they knew Lacks’ story and were willing to share it. Like cells dividing, the information left their science classroom and spread throughout the school.


Embracing the Unpredictable

Allowing students to direct inquiry is the key to bringing social justice issues into the science classroom, says Angela Calabrese Barton. A professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, Calabrese Barton is also the author of Teaching Science for Social Justice. Among her experiences are years of showing homeless and other underserved youths how to use science to understand their communities and solve problems.

Calabrese Barton has learned that exploring science-related social issues means grappling with questions and answers that aren’t always predictable. “When students ask you questions, you become vulnerable,” she says. “You give up some authority and are learning right along with them—they become the experts.”

She remembers working with a teacher in Manhattan whose school served a diverse, lower-income population. The students were studying the taxonomy, mating habits and behavior of the bird most familiar to them—the urban pigeon. The teacher gamely took on each unexpected question (“Can pigeons be racist?”), but one comment in particular made Calabrese Barton wish the students could have explored beyond the project’s parameters. “Why are there more pigeons on our side of Broadway?” one student wanted to know.

Although this might have been just the student’s perception, says Calabrese Barton, the class could have statistically analyzed the data. “Maybe there were more pigeons on their side,” she says, “and maybe there were reasons for that, such as [less frequent] trash pickup.”

Tips for Linking Science and Social Justice

Dig into the news. Talk with your students about current events, which almost always have science and/or socio-scientific angles. “Your own school or community issues are a good place to start,” says Angela Calabrese Barton.

Use book excerpts. Reading book excerpts and asking students to respond to them in writing can help them put a face on scientific information. Dana McCullough introduces a unit on blood by having her students read a story about Ryan White, a hemophiliac who was expelled from his middle school before dying of AIDS in 1990.

Making an Impact

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Calabrese Barton now works with the Boys and Girls Club of Lansing, Mich., and its Green Energy Technologies in the City (GET City) after-school program. GET City offers low-income and other underrepresented students a hands-on, year-round experience in the science and engineering of energy sustainability. The goal is to help them make an impact on their own communities.

As part of the state’s “Change a Light, Change Michigan” campaign, GET City students investigated the scientific and environmental issues surrounding conversion to compact fluorescent light bulbs. They figured out how much their schools would save by converting to CFLs and created a set of informational videos that they entered into a contest sponsored by the local Board of Water and Light.

They also found that many families in their communities could not afford the higher upfront cost of CFLs, even though they would save money over the longer life span of the new bulbs. The students pointed this out to the utility board, which not only pronounced them winners of the video contest but donated new CFLs to the students’ families and to their community-based energy workshops. In this case, says Calabrese Barton, the students framed the science as an economics issue.

Students start to realize that “if we do our research both about science and the community, people will listen to us,” says Calabrese Barton. In the case of Jennifer Welborn’s students, those people worked for a multinational corporation.

Welborn, who teaches at Amherst Regional Middle School in Massachusetts, discusses the social construction of race with her students. “Black is highly variable, depending on where you go in the world,” she says. Her students see this by comparing their own arms and challenging themselves to answer the question, “At what point can you say you’re black?”

They learn the scientific principle—that such an experiment is not measurable and cannot determine outcomes such as intelligence and physical health—and they explore the social issues surrounding various standardized tests that don’t account for these variables.

Several years ago, one of Welborn’s students drew her attention to the label on a container of Tums, an antacid also marketed as a calcium supplement by GlaxoSmithKline (then SmithKline Beecham). The label stated that Caucasian and Asian women were at higher risk for developing osteoporosis.

Based on their prior knowledge, Welborn’s students challenged the statement. Wouldn’t the label create a “diagnostic disadvantage,” they asked, to people who had low bone density for other reasons? And would those people put off asking their doctors about symptoms or other information based on the disclaimer? The students decided to share their thoughts with SmithKline Beecham.

At first, there was no response. But three or four months later, Welborn said, students were notified that the label had been changed. It now makes no reference to race.

“It takes a lot of money to change a label,” Welborn points out. The company didn’t specify its reasons for changing the wording, but the students chose to believe they’d had an effect. The most important thing, Welborn says, is that they did thoughtful research and then acted on it for the benefit of a wider community.

All three of these teachers believe that science, just as much as social studies or English, can lead students to become creators of social justice solutions. McCullough says her “hidden curriculum” encourages students to be skeptical, to value nonconformity and to understand that there are moral and ethical implications to new discoveries—all values important to recognizing potential injustice.

“The hidden curriculum is a curriculum of the ‘in-between spaces,’” she says. It links standards-based science teaching to students’ lives and “teaches our students to become co-workers in creating a world that is socially just.”

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Learning for Justice in the South

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