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Integrating Human Rights with STEM Education Inspires Students

Myles Boylan, left, Glenn Mitoma, Eliza Reilly and Sara Tolbert participated in a panel discussion on how to encourage evidence-based policies to support human rights in STEM education. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

A smart phone application to de-escalate tensions during traffic stops, a voting machine to give the disabled an accessible way to cast a ballot and a community-based research project to test the impact of mining on the Hopi Navajo Reservation’s groundwater provide snapshots of practicing science through the lens of human rights, presentations at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting showed.

In the field and in labs students applied scientific concepts and methods to problems they find relevant, using research data to develop and test responses to assist local policing, broaden voting participation and protect drinking water supplies.

The projects, undertaken by students of all levels, were among examples that stand at the intersection of an emerging approach to teaching that integrates the fundamental tenets of human rights into science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

Linking human rights and science was explored from multiple perspectives during the Jan. 25-26 meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, a network of 26 science, engineering and health organizations.

“The international rights of freedom of speech, freedom of travel, freedom to associate and collaborate are freedoms to the essential ingredients in the practice of science,” said Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS, in opening remarks. “We should be looking at what human rights bring to science in those ways. Similarly, we will be looking today at what science brings to human rights.”

Two expert panels and breakout training sessions demonstrated how STEM education taught through the prism of human rights helps inspire students, puts the scientific method to work in the collection and eventual application of evidence and allows students to design and build projects that address civic issues. “Students love this stuff,” said Myles Boylan, program director at the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

Participants said reimagining STEM education has been shown to draw new students into the field, from elementary school through graduate school, keep them involved and build a more diverse student body and, eventually, a more diverse STEM community.

Such novel approaches are not without challenges, speakers said, including institutional barriers and academic resistance to altering the way courses are taught, particularly core courses. In some areas, faculty face concerns of politicization and encounter funding restrictions.

Jessica Wyndham, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program and coordinator of the Science and Human Rights Coalition, which launched in 2009, said such approaches empower students, improve academic outcomes and encourage interdisciplinary partnerships.

In a keynote address Juan Gilbert of the University of Florida pointed to a smart phone app for use during traffic stops and a voting machine accessible to the disabled, creations by his students inspired by human rights and science. | Heming Nelson/4SiteStudios

Eliza Reilly, executive director of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, a non-profit which seeks to strengthen student learning and interest in STEM by connecting course topics to issues of local, national and global importance, said rethinking STEM education is necessary to produce graduates equipped to tackle society’s environmental, economic and political challenges.

“Context-based learning, problem solving, community-based research, these are now things that are widely acknowledged through the research to be the most effective teaching practices,” Reilly said.

Efforts to rethink STEM education with a civic mindset date to the late 1990s, prompted by then-AAAS President Jane Lubchenco’s urgent call for scientists to enter into “a new social contract” to devote their talents to society’s most pressing problems and communicate what they know to others, Reilly said.

In 1998, Lubchenco’s appeal was quickly followed by the release of the Boyer Commission’s “Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities” report that delivered a stark assessment of the nation’s research institutions and more broadly higher education.

Both eventually led, Reilly said, to the establishment of the center’s Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities program, which provides teaching resources to encourage faculty to frame courses around civic challenges such as public health disparities, inequality and environmental issues.

“The strategy is to teach the basic STEM content, do it rigorously, but do it through the lens of the problem,” she said, adding that “changing the script” encouraged faculty to devise new methods that improved learning.

Boylan said adopting such an approach addresses the two central challenges at the focus of National Science Foundation funding: the need to improve the quality of STEM education and expand access to STEM across groups.

Glenn Mitoma, an assistant professor of human rights, curriculum and instruction at the University Connecticut, said the history of human rights – from the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Article 26, to the 2011 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education – gives students insights into how to apply such principles to societal challenges.

“There is no doubt that science can bring a number of different dimensions to human rights programs,” Mitoma said.

Sara Tolbert, an associate professor of science education teaching at the University of Arizona, emphasized the importance of forging partnerships with local organizations. Tolbert cited, for instance, the groundwater field study on the Hopi Navajo Reservation as having improved student academic outcomes.

“We talked about how human rights dictate that everyone has a right to education and I think we could extend that to all students have the right to learn and not to just sit in classrooms where they find the information is completely irrelevant,” Tolbert said. 

[Associated image: Stephen Waldron]