Diversity and Social Justice in Student Learning Outcomes for the Sciences

CSU East Bay’s Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) outline the critical skills and knowledge that students should gain through their educational experience for majors, minors and classes. The SLOs have primary importance in framing our curriculum and also set expectations for both students and faculty. In this way, the SLOs are a good place to begin analyzing our science instruction through the lenses of diversity and social justice (DSJ). One challenge facing the sciences, however, is that most programs and courses have not traditionally included and may not explicitly lend themselves to including DSJ-related content. This section presents the context for our analysis and discussion and a few examples or ideas for new directions in developing DSJ-related SLOs for the sciences.

As one of the most diverse undergraduate institutions in the United States, CSU East Bay is perfectly positioned to address the acute and multifaceted problem of the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the fields of science, and particularly physical sciences. Considering this opportunity, we pose the following questions:

  • How does the overall structure of our science programs and courses affect the interest and retention of diverse students?
  • Is the educational environment in science programs inclusive and supportive for diverse students?
  • Do some traditions and assumptions of science curricula need to be re-examined?

Sample Text: "Effectively communicate scientific ideas, both theoretical and experimental, to diverse audiences through written and oral presentations, both formal and informal."

An important skill for students in the science to develop is the ability to communicate scientific ideas to audiences through oral presentations and written papers and reports. One aspect of such communication is the ability to communicate to diverse audiences: not just experts who share the same background as the presenter, but to the public and non-experts who may come from very different backgrounds. This provides a natural entry point for DSJ-related ideas. How is the science relevant to people from different backgrounds? How might different groups interpret the impact of the science differently based on their experiences?

Sample Text: "Work effectively and inclusively as a member of diverse collaborations to solve problems."

A critical skill for students in the sciences is the ability to collaborate with peers to carry out scientific research: solve problems, conduct experiments, evaluate findings, and present results. Effective collaboration demands that students are able to work effectively with a diverse group. This is another natural entry point for DSJ-related ideas. How can one be a good listener and involve all viewpoints? How can one have vigorous and respectful debates so that all ideas and possibilities are considered? How can one deal with both overt and subconscious biases to most effectively evaluate scientific findings? What practices lead to better inclusion of all members of a collaborative team?

Sample Text: "Understand and be able to analyze various sources of systematic error, including calibration errors, errors due to environmental perturbations, hidden assumptions in calculation or interpretation, subconscious/unconscious bias, etc."

Scientific results can be skewed in a variety of ways by subtle (and not so subtle!) systematic errors. One source of systematic error is bias of the researcher, often subconscious. Clearly many forms of bias intersect strongly with DSJ-related issues. In laboratory courses especially and also in lecture courses where the interpretation of experimental results are discussed, there is a great opportunity to discuss systematic errors due to bias and the importance of a diversity of perspectives in scientific analysis.

One nice example of how bias can lead to systematic error is the classic tale of the Millikan oil drop experiment from which we determined the charge of the electron. Here is the tale told by the Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman:

"We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It's a little bit off because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It's interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit bigger than Millikan's, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn't they discover the new number was higher right away? It's a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it's apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan's, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number close to Millikan's value they didn't look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that..." [1]

Other more directly DSJ-related versions of such bias can be investigated at, for example, the Project Implicit site at Harvard University and a seminar from the Association of American Medical Colleges

Sample Text: "Understand the variety of issues involved in the ethics of science and the rationale behind various ethical standards and regulations in science."

Ethics in science should be an important part of any science education, as ethical questions are at the nexus between science and policy and society. There are a lot of DSJ-related questions and issues that arise in probing ethics in science, and can find a place in various science courses.

A classic example of ethics in science is the problem of informed consent and the case of Henrietta Lacks [2]. A lesson plan based on the book is available online

"The ubiquitous cell line HeLa (whose immortality provides the book title) has helped power the explosive growth of cell biology for more than 50 years. But for all that is known about the cells themselves, most people know little if anything about the history and the woman behind these cells. [This book] explores the mystery behind HeLa cells, [the truth] about Henrietta Lacks, and the scientists, doctors, and institutions involved in this fascinating story that revolves around Lacks’ cervical cancer cells.

In this lesson, students will read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and learn what bioethics is and how it has influenced cellular research from the 1950s until now. They will learn what informed consent is and its importance to researchers and patients. They will learn how a major piece of science history has impacted their lives on an individual level."

[1] R. P. Feynman, R. Leighton, and E. Hutchings, “Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!” adventures of a curious character (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), p. 342.

[2] Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Broadway Books, 2011).