6 Ways STEM Educators Can Enhance Student Engagement in Our Democracy

September 18, 2023 | 8:07 am
engaged student in lecture hallGorodenkoff/shutterstock
Alyssa Shearer
Biologist and Science Educator

Educators in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) inspire students daily by revealing what we’ve discovered about the world around us and what we can do next with the latest innovations. STEM educators can also motivate students to use their knowledge and skills beyond the classroom and laboratory and become more civically engaged.

At a time when we are experiencing increased reliance on and benefits from advancements in science, alongside the need to regulate emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, we need STEM students and professionals to be politically engaged. This includes not only voting, but also in advocating for evidence-based policies, having informative conversations with friends and family, and even running for office.

There is a real need to intentionally cultivate a civic mindset in the sciences, as several studies have found that students in STEM majors tend to vote at lower rates, and show lower levels of civic responsibility, than their peers in other majors. Also, while there is not a lot of data on the voting levels of STEM professionals, it has been found that medical doctors have voted at lower rates than the general population, indicating that this trend may continue after college graduation.

The good news is that there has been a notable uptick in STEM student voting recently, and that STEM educators can help continue this trend by emphasizing ways their students can make a difference in our democracy. There are many nonpartisan strategies STEM educators can take to foster political awareness and action in their students. These range from simple reminders to designing lessons and assignments to encourage students to grapple with how science is connected to societal and political issues.

Below are many examples of what can be done to keep the STEM student voting trend on the positive trajectory by building a more politically and socially aware science classroom.

Use simple reminders and don’t schedule major classwork on election days

Amid a busy STEM student life, filled with due dates, exams, and lab reports, other responsibilities such as deciphering when, where, and how to vote can easily slip students’ minds, or not even be on their radar at all.

A simple nonpartisan way to remind students of voter registration and elections is by including key election-related information—like how and when to register to vote, absentee ballot request deadlines, and early voting days—in your class syllabus, schedule, or by a brief mention in class. If your school has an office for civic engagement or on campus voting sites, this can be listed as well.

Additionally, a survey of STEM students in 2018 found that the number one reason they did not vote, even if they intended too, was from running out of time due to school work. If possible, you can design the course schedule such that exams or other major assignments do not fall directly on or after elections days to help alleviate this common barrier to student voting. If you are able to spend a class period on voting information or want to weave this into your curriculum, check out educator resources from the Scholars Strategy Network.

Examine current events in science and science policy

Many STEM students see science as non-political, or even were drawn to a STEM discipline because of an apolitical identity. However, there are many ways that STEM knowledge and innovation can benefit our political systems and policies, and survey data shows that STEM students wish to learn more about science policies.

To help draw a STEM student’s eye to this, educators can use class time to examine current events related to science and science policy. It has been shown that student knowledge on current events is one of the strongest predictors of a student’s intent to vote.  Resources such as HHMI’s Biointeractive website provide many science news examples and guides for evaluating articles. Also, the Journal of Science Policy and Governance is open access and contains many volumes worth of science policy relevant articles. An added benefit of this activity is gains in media literacy, which can enhance student’s critical thinking skills and help students become more informed voters on any topic.

Discuss connections between STEM course work and societal issues

In addition to being aware of how science is connected to current issues, benefits can be drawn from deeper classroom conversations on societal and ethical issues in STEM.

The Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) program has found that their curriculum, focused on how science impacts civic life, made strong positive impacts on student’s ability to make connections between science and civic problems and to engage in critical thinking.

Similar benefits have been observed from lessons focused on socio-science issues (SSI) where science is taught through an ethical framework. By discussing the ways science interfaces with complex societal systems and ethical considerations, students make strides in content knowledge and scientific literacy, critical thinking skills, media literacy, and decision making abilities. These are the very same skills and forms of knowledge that students need to become motivated and informed voters.

Raise STEM student political identity

A major factor determining whether or not a student votes is tied to their identity as a voter. Having discussions and activities on the ways science and society intersect are helpful in building their knowledge, but might not translate into a change in their identity.

As with helping students to build a strong science identity by highlighting the diversity of scientists that exist, STEM students should also be exposed to scientists working in policy or working as elected officials. For example, Frances Colon is a neuroscientist who has served in multiple science policy and diplomacy capacities, working towards environmental justice. The former chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has a PhD in chemistry.

Scientists have held US political office from national to local levels. At the state level, Jamie Foster is a current member of the Connecticut house of representative and holds a doctorate in Nutritional Science. In New York city, former city council member and current Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine has a background in science education. Also, scientists have served as important activists historically and in recent years, successfully demanding better policies on issues ranging from pollution and energy policy to health care reforms. Raising STEM student awareness of these examples and many others can help cultivate their identity as politically engaged scientists.

Design assignments to encourage STEM student civic engagement

If finding classroom time for some of these ideas is a struggle, educators can still help students engage with societal and political issues related to science through out-of-class assignments.

One suggestion is to assign students to write an opinion piece on a science topic of their choice as it relates to a current pressing concern. This can help students to become informed on an issue they are passionate about and find their voice in bringing attention to it.

Many online resources exist for how to write an opinion piece, and great examples of science-focused op-eds exist in outlets such as Scientific American and Science Magazine. If your school has a newspaper, contact the editors to see if your student’s work can be published, or encourage your students to reach out to other media outlets to broadcast their message.

Share organizations that students can become involved with beyond the classroom

Learning when and where to vote, and how science intersects with societal issues in the classroom is a great start to becoming an active and informed voter.

You can also encourage STEM students to take what they learned beyond the classroom by becoming engaged with a science advocacy organization or project. Some projects and organizations may exist on your school’s campus, such as SPOT at Northwestern University.

There are also many ways to be civically engaged and participate in science advocacy through scientific societies, such as with the American Geophysical Union’s many science policy opportunities or by participating in the American Society for Microbiology’s Hill Day event. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is full of resources to civically engage STEM students and professionals. Other organizations such as National Science Policy Network’s Science on the Ballot and Science Rising are focused on increasing coverage of STEM related issues during elections and increasing STEM student voter turnout.

It’s time to mobilize the STEM student vote

This school year will lead us right up to the summer before the next presidential election. It takes time for young voters to become knowledgeable of the current issues in each election cycle and to make a voting plan. Therefore, there is no better time than this school year to implement strategies that will encourage civic engagement in our science classrooms. Consider using one or more of these strategies this year, and sharing these ideas with your fellow teachers, to continue to mobilize the STEM student vote.