Teaching Science for Social Justice

Barton, Angela Calabrese. et. al. eds. Teaching Science for Social Justice. New York: Teachers College, 2003, 197 pp.
Teaching Science for Social Justice offers scenes from the trenches of the cultural war zone that is K-12 science education in an impoverished urban environment, and the view is at once sobering and inspiring. The authors explore the results of putting feminist theory into action via several in-depth case studies of how students learn science in after-school programs at two homeless shelters: Southside Shelter in New York City and Hope Shelter in Well Springs, Texas. This compelling book demonstrates the power of story as a tool for social change; the authors add this qualitative evidence to the quantitative data on urban education and the theoretical frameworks offered by feminist science studies. As the author’s say, although the “solutions to these dilemmas about access and opportunity in science education seem so simple in theory: Create science lessons that are student-centered, culturally relevant, and deeply meaningful,” putting these solutions into practice involves challenges that call for a broader lens of understanding (159). Thankfully, the authors have provided just such a lens.
Chapter 1 begins, most appropriately and engagingly, with a story that introduces us to some of the children we will come to know and the environment in which they live. As any good story should do, this one paints a picture of children’s lives in urban poverty that is limited in all directions by boundaries—around their educational opportunities, around their access to resources of all kinds, and around their “home” (a 10-foot tall black iron security fence bounding the Hope Shelter property). However, their spirits and minds are not yet bound because this group of 5 to 11 year old Science Club members have planned and “engineered” a tunnel under the fence. The tunnel story serves as a metaphor for the ingenuity and resilience of the children who will later be highlighted in the case studies.

Chapter 2 provides a theoretical foundation for understanding the stories in the book by briefly summarizing the urban science education literature and challenging its “deficit model” view of “science for all” which assumes that: 1) students “not versed in the culture of Western science are ‘lacking’”; 2) students who don’t accept or model Western ways of knowing are not doing good science; and 3) “science achievement scores are based on one’s efforts and abilities rather than one’s degree of enculturation into a system” (26). This literature focuses on what urban students lack in relation to achievements (lagging behind in test scores and graduation rates), resources (books, lab supplies, certified teachers) and opportunities (challenging, high-level curriculum). These authors propose that we expand this view by also focusing on what urban students bring in relation to achievements (organized clubs, home, community), resources (human and social capital), and opportunities (beginning instruction with students’ experiences). Finally, the authors propose four themes for making sense of youth’s science events and practices that will be used to examine the case studies: 1) power and co-opting science spaces; 2) relevant science (activating resources in nonstandard ways); 3) transformations (science as a tool for social change); and 4) community.

Chapters 3 through 7 tell the students’ stories in relation to these four themes. Chapter 3 uses the theme (first identified by Chicana feminists such as Gloria Anzaldua) of the borderland as a place of strength to explore ways in which two students, Claudia and Juan, used their marginalized status to resist stereotypes, creatively use resources and build political solidarity (63-64). Chapter 4 explores ways in which two students, Junior and Iris, disrupted power structures and power relationships to co-opt the after school science space to serve their needs and the needs of their community. Chapter 5 tells the story of how students made science more relevant to them (and their community) by activating their resources in nonstandard ways; they organized the building of a picnic table rather than the window boxes in the teacher’s original plan. Several chapters include helpful tables to support the readers understanding of key concepts more explicitly. For example, Table 5.1 details the relationship between what students learned and the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills science standards in relation to content, process and skills, and Table 5.2 provides assessment questions in relation to the nature of science knowledge, the role of transformation and power, and the role of authority. In perhaps one of the most powerful stories in the book, Chapter 6 tells how students transformed a vacant lot that was previously used for illegal drug sales into a community garden—literally using science practice to transform their lives. Darkside, the 16-year old Black, Cuban, American, who was a leader in the project’s development is described as viewing science as something that helps “to beautify and change your community to make it a better place for yourself, your family, and your community” (134-135).

The final two chapters weave the stories back together into a new theoretical cloth of which the warp is the construct of community (Chapter 7) and the woof is science as social justice work (Chapter 8). In Chapter 7, reflecting on the earlier stories and what these students can teach us, the authors ask new questions about what it means to participate in a “science community” as urged by the national education reform initiatives. The students who built the community garden named their project REAL (Restoring Environments and Landscapes) and the authors suggest that the acronym reflects how they thought about science—that it needs to be “inclusive, meaningful, and relevant” to their lives not a “fake project” like in school (145). These students did not feel part of a “scientific community unless their scientific activities actually contributed to their lives or their neighborhoods,” and their thinking indicates a not-so-subtle shift from the emphasis on “science for science’s sake to science for society’s sake” (155).

Finally, in Chapter 8, the authors challenge educators to view science as social justice work based on two ideas: 1) that all education should be “about building a more just world”; and 2) that “science holds a uniquely powerful place in society” (168). The authors show how a broader view of both the content and form of science, such as allowing for “multiple points of entry” to the practice of science, and honoring networks and relationships in terms of how science is practiced, can help create an environment where science can emerge from urban students.These stories may shine the light on just a few of the “more than 40% of urban students who attend high-poverty schools,” but what beams forth is a bright, clear vision of what is possible when we practice truly student-centered education (6). The authors have shown us how teachers can facilitate science education that begins where students are and empowers them to be agents for change in their own lives and in their community. This small book is like a lighthouse in the hurricane that is urban education; it will guide your ship to a feminist safe harbor.

The entire review was published in Feminist Teacher 16.2 (Spring 2006): 150-151 and is available at: http://ft.press.illinois.edu/