We live in a complex world – Science Magazine

Robert Neubecker

The news spread quickly. A student at the small liberal arts college where I am a biology professor had allegedly posted anti-Semitic neo-Nazi rhetoric on social media. Faculty members and students alike were shocked. The bubble of our close-knit community had burst; the realities of the external world were now the realities of our internal world, too. In the hours and days that followed, we all asked, “How could this happen?” Students asked another question, too: “Why don’t faculty in our STEM courses discuss these issues with us?” This second question troubled me. I and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) faculty members at my institution do explore social and political issues in our courses. But our students were telling us that, as a whole, we fell short.

I make a point of presenting science within a social context. I include issues of social justice in my courses and talk with my students about current events involving hate speech and violence. But I didn’t always. Why should I? After all, I was trained to be a scientist. As a graduate student in the late 1980s, fascinated by the biology of HIV and hoping to launch a career at a primarily undergraduate institution, I thought my mission was clear: Help my students understand and appreciate this amazing science. Examining the lived experience of HIV/AIDS wasn’t part of the plan.

Then, as a postdoc in the mid-1990s, I saw the AIDS quilt. Started the previous decade, the quilt consists of cloth panels memorializing people who died of the disease. By 1996, it had grown to thousands of panels, and it was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—not far from where I worked. Walking past panel after panel, my research suddenly gained a new context. Because of the virus that piqued my scientific fancy, these individuals had lost their lives, many of them estranged from their families and ostracized from their communities. The quilt’s visceral impact was transformative. I realized that science can’t be studied or taught from the confines of an ivory tower. Science needs to be studied holistically and taught with compassion and empathy.

Still, when I began my faculty career, I was reluctant to veer too far from basic science in my classes. But I kept recalling the AIDS quilt. I couldn’t talk with my students about HIV without talking about stigma. I couldn’t discuss recent advances in medicine without acknowledging the health care disparities in our country. Initially my classroom forays into social justice were limited, focusing on issues—The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina—that were very closely related to the science we were discussing. I was encouraged that, in course evaluations and informal chats, students said they appreciated looking at biology more broadly.

Science needs to be studied holistically and taught with compassion and empathy.

As I became increasingly aware of how science intersects with social issues, I broadened my approach. When I taught about HIV transmission, I brought up gender-based violence, needle exchange programs, and sex work decriminalization. Through the lively, robust conversations that followed, we all gained a more nuanced view of the science—and the world.

So, what about the hateful rhetoric allegedly posted by one of our students? It may not have been directly related to the content of my courses, but it was directly related to our lives as human beings. My students needed to process this troubling occurrence, and I needed to make my classroom a safe space to discuss it. I acknowledged it in class. It wasn’t the first time I had acknowledged current events in the classroom. But it was the first time an event like this had hit so close to home. That made it all the more apparent to me that we should incorporate these types of conversations into our work as educators.

Treating my classroom as separate from the outside world is idealistic at best and foolhardy at worst. Science does not exist in a vacuum. Our students do not live in a vacuum. Yes, I’m a scientist, but I’m also a person living in a complex world. So are my students.

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