Talk About Teaching and Learning
January 24, 2017
, Volume 63, No. 20
Teaching STEM at the Time of Political Distress1
When I was 2 years old, all universities in Iran were closed for three years. The universities reopened (1982) in the midst of a war that took the lives of about 1.5 million people on both sides (1980-1988). Two major universities established their first PhD programs in physics in the same year that the war ended, even as both cities where these universities are located (Tehran and Shiraz) were the targets of daily missiles that killed many civilians and displaced millions.
I often ask myself what motivated a handful of US-educated physicists with job opportunities in the US to return to Iran to establish these PhD programs while civilians were dying. What motivated that first cohort of PhD students to pursue high-energy physics rather than fighting for their country or participating in the reconstruction efforts? Regardless of the answer, their decision profoundly affected my life and many others. One of the first graduates of the PhD program became one of my favorite teachers/scholars during my undergraduate studies, giving me a chance to pursue my dream and passion, physics. The programs they established quickly became some of the most successful physics programs in the Middle East and their graduates are now successful scientists, engineers, economists, politicians and leaders of the country. Their model spread, motivating development of many other PhD programs in the basic sciences.
Perhaps they chose to dedicate their lives to science and education, because education is needed in any society under any circumstance. It is motivating to me to think about their impact on me and my country when I think about my role teaching chemistry (and STEM in general) in times of political distress. When we teach basic science, we are teaching more than just the laws of nature. We teach how our understanding of the laws of nature is constructed using evidence-based reasoning. We teach how one gathers evidence, builds hypotheses and fortifies those hypotheses using various observation methods in order to move towards maximizing scientific consensus. We teach how to construct “facts,” not just as facts that are written in stone, but as “consensus” that is carefully constructed based on gathering various pieces of evidence, constructing mathematical concepts to explain them, and verifying them over and over, until new phenomena emerges that necessitates changing and upgrading those “facts.” The scientific process is like designing a new Lego set from scratch. These critical thinking skills are something that we hope our students would apply in their real life.
Evidence-based reasoning provides an intellectual anchor to hold when the world appears to be falling apart. When few others are willing to apply reason, science trains us to use that logic to survive and to build consensus with others in order to resolve conflicts. When opinions appear to be more important than facts, evidence-based reasoning can return us to the facts and allow us to question and verify those facts. Education, both in the sciences and humanities is important not just because it guarantees the future technological advances of a country, but also because it provides critical skills for the educators, politicians, and the general public.
Should political events be discussed in a science class? I see multiple reasons against and for discussing major political or social events in a science classroom or making exceptions in exam and assignment deadlines. As scientists it is our mandate to teach science and follow a specific curriculum, and to prepare our students for their future classes/careers. Discussing politics may be distracting and lead to delays in teaching. Students may see the science classroom as a refuge or feel that exam or assignment delays are unfair to them if they have already struggled to meet the deadline. Moreover, as scientists most of us are not trained in social or political sciences. We don’t always feel as if we have the right background and tools to critically think about complex political events. Most of us are unsure how to bring up the subject, and feel that it is easier to stay on topic.
However, sometimes the crisis dominates. On Friday, November 11, when Penn’s black freshmen were targeted by a hate crime, most of us wanted to do something to protect and help our students to cope with this unacceptable attack. I went back to the lab, unsure of what to do when I couldn’t find my two undergraduate students. One thing was very clear though: this event could not have been ignored, because many of our students—in particular our black students who are typically already under-represented and marginalized in STEM classes—could not have been expected to focus on a class discussion or exam when there was an ongoing perceived threat to their safety. It is important for me to be prepared should another crisis happen.
If I decide to discuss a political event, what should I consider? I don’t have a recipe, but here are a few things that I may consider when discussing politics.
1. Student well-being is important to their learning. We make exceptions when a student faces a personal distress and try to accommodate them. Major political or social events could probably follow the same path. It is important, however, to remember that when the majority of our students are in distress, support networks on campus can be quickly overloaded, so there may be even more of a need to be lenient. Sometimes, just acknowledging the event could be a big step towards students’ emotional recovery.
2. Not everyone is affected in the same way. Our students have a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. A major shift in the policy may mean just an inconvenience for one group, while others may face deportations, hate crimes, or attacks based on their sexual and religious identity. While we may instinctively want to help everyone, and rightly so, we may not always be able to. It is important to be conscious of how a discussion may affect those who are the most marginalized and ensure that they are given the chance to stay and excel in our class. A generic response may not address their specific concerns and can further disenfranchise them.
3. Classrooms are not safe spaces. Marginalized students may not feel safe to speak out or may find it traumatizing to share their concerns with strangers. One can consider providing a chance for students to discuss their concerns during office hours, over email, Canvas or even anonymously. While trying to be more generous with my time, I can also provide an alternative list of places they go for help.
4. Group assignments can be challenging. There has been significant effort on campus to promote SAIL (structured, active, in-class, learning) classrooms. While we typically assign students to random groups, the groups cannot function well if the students don’t work together. Major disagreements on political issues can reduce student participation and hinder learning. One could show flexibility by allowing students to request a group change or even to opt out if such action becomes warranted.
5. The instructor may not feel safe. Finally, when considering discussing politics in the classroom it is fair to ask whether one feels safe with the discussion, given the recent backlash against professors who speak about politics in their classrooms or on social media. An instructor from a marginalized group could consider whether their safety would be compromised and whether that is a price they are willing to pay. One can contribute differently, by reaching out to specific students in distress, or by volunteering their time outside the class instead.
1 I would like to thank Tobias Baumgart for help constructing the ideas and editing this document and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, UW-Seattle, for editing this document. I participated in a CTL-organized gathering of the faculty to discuss teaching on Monday, November 14, after the election. Some of the ideas presented here were nucleated in that discussion and all faculty present in that meeting are acknowledged for their illuminating discussions that contributed to this piece.
Zahra Fakhraai is an assistant professor of chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.