Climate Justice in Chemistry Curricula—and Beyond

College educators are among those leading the way in new initiatives to incorporate social justice into modern STEM coursework.

by Robin Donovan for the American Chemical Society 

Students handling glassware in a lab
Photo by Artem from Pexels

Loyd Bastin, Ph.D. hasn’t always thought of himself as an activist. But the Widener University chemistry and biochemistry professor learned—almost by accident—that it’s relatively easy to meet with state lawmakers. Thanks to an interdisciplinary initiative in Pennsylvania that focuses on bringing student lobbyists to meet politicians (in this case, to encourage them to address the growing cost of higher education) Bastin discovered it was surprisingly easy to meet his congressperson and was inspired.

“It was eye-opening to me as a scientist,” Bastin says. “I got to thinking, ‘We need scientists who will do that” type of advocacy. Today, he asks students in his chemistry courses to select and summarize a bill that interests them, before ultimately traveling to the state capitol to speak with lawmakers. Students informally present chosen bills to their classmates, who decide to pursue one or more. After some information gathering, students compile their research to create a whitepaper with a bulleted summary and strong supporting evidence.

“They do quite a bit of research to look at, ‘Are those good ideas?’, and, ‘Are there other states that have similar bills?’” Bastin says. Finally, they lobby fellow students on campus, gathering postcards with their peers’ supportive messages and feedback, before traveling to Harrisburg. There, they seek out congressional representatives of the postcard writers (and from their own districts), hand-delivering those letters of support, along with white papers and other materials.

Bastin says STEM students and professionals are uniquely positioned to guide lawmakers. “We can talk about environmental issues, inform legislatures, educate them, and maybe offer some knowledge about the science behind certain bills,” he says.

His efforts are popular in his green chemistry courses, where students learn lobbying techniques alongside more traditional lessons. He’s honed his technique lately, too, learning when and how to contact state politicians: “It’s harder in the fall because they’re not in session as much,” he says and offers to visit local offices can simply be too much driving. Instead, Bastin tries to find a day when legislators are in session a bit closer to Widener’s Chester, PA, campus.

So far, students have supported pending legislation like the Keep Pennsylvania Green bill, among others. The initiative provides funding to clean up abandoned coal mines and provides additional funding for parks and trees in urban areas, among other provisions. Students brainstormed ways to fund the bill, including a plastic bag tax, and presented these to their congressional representatives.

Social justice addresses student priorities

Bastin’s course parallels the outcome community college educators Sonya Doucette, Ph.D. and Heather Price, Ph.D. were hoping for when they won National Science Foundation(NSF) funding for their Climate Justice in Undergraduate STEM Incorporating Civic Engagement (C-JUSTICE) initiative to weave social justice lessons into curricula throughout their respective community colleges. Now in its second year, the project is an outgrowth of an earlier generation of workshops that taught educators how to embed sustainability into undergraduate curricula. Doucette and, later, Price, applied the same process to social justice, and now champion efforts to incorporate civic engagement across their institutions. That means incorporating social justice not only in their own chemistry courses but also across other STEM disciplines, as well as the humanities.

“Students love it,” says Sonya Doucette, a chemistry and oceanography professor at Bellevue College in northern Washington state. “They want to be more engaged civically. They just don’t know how to become civically engaged.” Students surveyed pre- and post-climate justice coursework at the community colleges where Price and Doucette teach showed that a strong majority of students ranked climate justice, social justice, and mental health as their top concerns. Later, additional survey results also showed that students felt more able to use course content to help their communities after taking classes that included social justice as part of the curricula.

For Price, a chemistry professor at North Seattle College, that meant helping students explore ways to construct air filters using box fans during a smoky fire season with unusually high levels of air pollution. Students installed particulate matter sensors in various buildings on campus to track indoor air quality as smoke worsened, testing various setups to see which best filtered air.

“This is climate data,” Price says. “These fires are exacerbated by the drought and the heat that has come from a warming environment here in the Northwest.” Price says that incorporating these real-world climate change impacts, particularly calling out when and how they disproportionately impact marginalized groups, is part of including an equity ethic in higher education. The term was coined by Vanderbilt professor Ebony McGee, who is the author of Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation.

Classes with an equity ethic “give students a feeling of purpose for what they're learning, that they're not going to just be going into the corporate world for the money, but that they can actually do something that connects with their community and that helps their community,” Price says.

Price adds that it’s not enough to show students the science behind, say, climate change unless they are also taught how to address it in their own communities. “We also need to give them the tools to heal and repair and fix the problems,” she says. “A doctor would never just give me test results and walk away, right? They’re going to give you the test results, the science, and then they're going to also give you … the information that you need to then repair and heal and fix the problem.”

Support for Climate Justice faculty

In Washington state, the board of community and technical colleges has launched a state-wide effort to funnel funds from the state legislature to higher education with a climate-solutions focus. That could ultimately mean automotive programs that include mechanical education for electrical vehicles, or teaching around real-world issues like fossil fuel burning and resultant particulate matter pollution. “It’s about making education more relevant,” Doucette says.

Price and Doucette also hope that others, whether faculty at two- or four-year institutions, will weave social justice into their coursework. Thanks to their NSF funding, they now offer an $800 stipend to faculty who participate in a set of Climate Justice Project workshops.

Doucette says that some faculty have had initial concerns about how social justice conversations fit into STEM classrooms. For example, some professors perceive this as bringing politics into the classroom.

“We try to push back on that a little bit,” Doucette says. “There are papers out there about, for example, historical redlining and associations with air pollution. There's data. It's not political. It's a fact.” And while she acknowledges that it could be viewed as another source of time pressure for stressed educators, she also hopes that professors will look to their own purpose.

“We can teach our students how to be agents of change and transformation,” Doucette says. “And we're transforming them as part of education rather than just throwing at them a bunch of discrete and disparate skills and content that are kind of meaningless to them without context.”

We can teach our students how to be agents of change and transformation,” Doucette says. "And we're transforming them as part of education rather than just throwing at them a bunch of discrete and disparate skills and content that are kind of meaningless to them without context."