What is Social Justice in STEMM Higher Education

Sharon Homer-Drummond, PhD
Tri-County Technical College
Carlos Goller
North Carolina State University
Patricia Marsteller
Emory University
Pat Marstellar (she/her/hers), Emory University, Carlos Goller (he/him/his), North Carolina State University, and Sharon Homer-Drummond (she/her/hers), Tri-County Technical College

published Apr 15, 2022 11:22am

Social justice in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) higher education may be defined as ensuring that all students see themselves as fully represented and supported members of STEMM fields, even as new students (Byars-Winston & Dahlberg, 2020). That baseline implies that each student's cultural, religious, sexual and, gender identities, nationality, and socio-economic backgrounds are respected, welcomed, and honored in the STEMM courses. Social justice also includes access for learners of various backgrounds and preparation, of variously-abled situations, and socio-economic status. Social justice in STEMM also requires that faculty are as diverse as the student body, and that curricula include robust representation of fully diverse scientists, their data, and their work. Students can then see perspectives of counter-stereotypical scientists, and see themselves in those roles and in that work. The current reality in STEMM classrooms does not reflect that ideal of social justice. We therefore argue that curricula, faculty and staff, and school support systems need to change in order to incorporate social justice into STEMM.

The following images illustrate these concepts of social justice and access.

Panel A represents inequality - not all students have equal access to even basic support systems. By the time we get to Panel C, we move from inequality to equity. To make that move, we must build classrooms and systems to address student needs. To move to justice in the classroom, represented by Panel D, we must fix all aspects of the system. The current situation in higher education STEMM classes is one of inequality - not all students have equal access to even basic support systems. To move from equality to equity, we must build classrooms and systems that address student needs, and that combine tools that identify and address different student backgrounds and preparation. But to truly move to justice in our classrooms, we must fix all aspects of the system, including representation in curricula, faculty and staff (Davis & Fry, 2019).

However, the data show that many students often feel excluded in many ways from STEMM communities. They need teachers and faculty who recognize and honor those feelings, and their experiences, both for their academic and professional success, and for their mental and emotional well-being (Watkins & Beresin, 2022). Before we can open the way for students to self-regulate their own learning, we must engender trust that we will promote justice and inclusion. That trust can only happen when we first hear and understand our students' frustrations with the barriers that exist in STEMM communities.

What can faculty do NOW?

Faculty should invest time and effort in learning, reading, and self-reflection to better reflect values of social justice in the classroom and in curricula. However, our students can't afford to wait another ten or fifteen years until we feel 'ready' to honor and value them in the classroom, and to ensure that they feel represented in their fields. Generations of students have already had to wait. We need to step forward courageously, knowing that we will sometimes falter or make mistakes, as we build new systems. Below are some early steps we can take.

  • Use inclusive language in syllabi, addenda, and class communication (Greer, 2014).
  • Share chosen pronouns.
  • Provide information for student services (examples are referenced in the citations section).
  • Use inclusive language in case studies, reflections, and assessments (Madden et al., 2017).
  • Spotlight diverse scientists and their data (Schinski et al., 2016).
  • Review our role as educators and mentors.
  • Build rapport,
  • Communicate a welcoming and culturally-supportive environment that includes neurodiverse students (Harrison et al., 2019; Seidel et al., 2017).
  • Normalize help-seeking and access need sharing behaviors (Reinholz & Ridgway, 2021).
  • Vary and adapt strategies to fit individual student needs, backgrounds, skill levels, talents and learning profiles.

Concluding thoughts

To continue this discussion, please join us for the 2022 BioQUEST summer workshop. The theme is "Sparking IDEAS: Inclusive, Diverse, Equitable, and Accessible Communities in STEM Classrooms."

We encourage all faculty to commit to honoring our students, by building diverse, inclusive, equitable, and welcoming curricula and classrooms. To help our readers get started, we've included examples and 'quick-start' references below the citations. Please let us know what's working for you, and how it's impacting your students!


Addy, T. M., Dube, D., Mitchell, K. A., & SoRelle, M. E. (2021). What inclusive instructors do: Principles and practices for excellence in college teaching. Stylus Publishing.

Cooper, K. M., Schinske, J. N., & Tanner, K. D. (2021). Reconsidering the share of a think-pair-share: Emerging limitations, alternatives, and opportunities for research. CBE Life Sciences Education, 20(1), fe1-fe1. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-08-0200

Donovan, S. S. (2017). Reimagining professional development: Faculty mentoring networks as a model for connecting projects and teachers.QUBES Leadership Team, QUBES Educational Resources. doi:10.25334/Q44T17

Davis, L. & Fry, R. (2019). College faculty have become more racially and ethnically diverse, but remain far less so than students. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/31/us-college-faculty-student-diversity/

Fritzgerald, A. (2020). Anti-racism and universal design for learning: Building expressways to success. CAST, Inc.

Greer, A. (2014). Increasing inclusivity in the classroom. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [15 March 2022] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/increasing-inclusivity-in-the-classroom/.

Harrison, C. D., Nguyen, T. A., Seidel, S. B., Escobedo, A. M., Hartman, C., Lam, K., Liang, K. S., Martens, M., Acker, G. N., Akana, S. F., Balukjian, B., Benton, H. P., Blair, J. R., Boaz, S. M., Boyer, K. E., Bram, J. B., Burrus, L. W., Byrd, D. T., Caporale, N., . . . Tanner, K. D. (2019). Investigating instructor talk in novel contexts: Widespread use, unexpected categories, and an emergent sampling strategy. CBE Life Sciences Education, 18(3), ar47-ar47. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.18-10-0215

Madden, P.E., Wong C., Vera Cruz, A.C., Olle, C.D. and M. Barnett. 2017. Social justice driven STEM learning (SSTEMJ): A curricular framework for teaching STEM in a social justice driven, urban, college access program. Catalyst: A Social Justice Forum, 7(1). Retrieved [18 March 2022] from https://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1086&context=catalyst

Reinholz, D. L., & Ridgway, S. W. (2021). Access needs: Centering students and disrupting ableist norms in STEM. CBE Life Sciences Education, 20(3), es8-es8. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.21-01-0017

Schinske, J., Cardenas, M., & Kaliangara, J. (2015). Uncovering scientist stereotypes and their relationships with student race and student success in a diverse, community college setting. CBE Life Sciences Education14(3), ar35. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-12-0231

Seidel, S. B., Reggi, A. L., Schinske, J. N., Burrus, L. W., & Tanner, K. D. (2015). Beyond the biology: A systematic investigation of noncontent instructor talk in an introductory biology course. CBE Life Sciences Education, 14(4), ar43-ar43. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.15-03-0049

Watkins, K.B., & Beresin, G. (2022). College students of color: overcoming racial disparities and discrimination.The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. Retrieved [17 March 2022] from https://www.mghclaycenter.org/parenting-concerns/young-adults/college-students-of-color/