Ethics in STEM Education: Going Beyond the Classroom
The founder of STEM.org lays out a framework to help STEM reach its enormous potential in schools and workplaces.
When we discuss STEM education, it's easy to focus on acts of teaching and learning. But if our vision of STEM is only confined to the classroom, we risk ignoring a large portion of what the true essence of STEM education is all about. It is more than just a collection of subjects taught in isolation. In its truest form, STEM is a state of mind: a practice of critical thinking and problem-solving that learners engage in throughout life.
Access to STEM education is a social justice issue that goes far beyond the latest pedagogical trends or trinkets. It is becoming increasingly more apparent that we are at an inflection point in human history when those who effectively apply STEM can either improve the lives of many or contribute to the acceleration of profound societal inequality. As practitioners, we have a responsibility to leverage the power of STEM to alleviate disparities in our own communities and beyond, which would likely result in an era of peace and human progress.
Ethical Approaches to STEM Education
Though modern questions about artificial intelligence (AI) and bioethical considerations related to cloning and gene editing leap to mind, ethical STEM education is about more than simply adding these interesting topics to the curriculum. An effective, moralistic approach requires that all stakeholders commit to a framework that:
Addresses issues of access;
Promotes the common good;
Allows for independent thought;
Commits to equity and inclusion;
Maintains a free and unbiased flow of ideas;
Respects the planet and its finite resources;
Exists unencumbered by commercial demands for profit;
Insists upon academic honesty and the integrity of research; and
Provides training to engage ethically with rapidly changing technology.
Programs like E-STEM at Gwynedd Mercy University have incorporated ethical studies into science programs, and as a result have prepared students for greater workplace success and improved their scores on measures of moral development. Research also suggests that engaging students in principled environmental studies increases student enjoyment of these subjects. As the points above make clear, however, upholding ethics in STEM education goes well beyond what happens in school and requires others to do their part. If we are to succeed in making STEM live up to its promise, we must engage a broad coalition of partners
Holding All Stakeholders Accountable
With an ever-expanding selection of reports and research studies to read through, it can be difficult to know where to begin. The following categories will help to provide a quick reference outlining the role and responsibilities of key participants within the STEM ecosystem, or what some refer to as the STEM pipeline.
Students, Interns, and Apprentices: Above all, the learner's responsibility is to prepare themselves for the future, approaching new challenges with an open mind and integrity. Students should actively engage with new material and connect classroom learning and out-of-school experiences to real-world problems. Being an ethical STEM student is about more than achieving good grades or earning a credential. Learners should also seek strategies to solve community problems and practice teamwork to put these solutions in place.
Parents, Guardians, and Mentors: Moral education begins at home, and it is the primary caregiver's responsibility to create a child's first ethical framework and training. Once this foundation is put into practice, ethics should be an ongoing discussion throughout childhood and even adulthood, using practical examples and case studies. As learners mature, the role models and influencers around them can specifically support them by discussing issues of access, technology, and current events to help them bring their learning to life. They can also model ways in which they think through moral dilemmas and offer lively discussion and debate to provide different perspectives that enrich “book learning” and help them make more informed decisions.
Teachers and Administrators: Education professionals and other school personnel are responsible for providing a safe environment for students to explore STEM — and it should go well beyond rows of desks in a classroom to encompass areas like libraries and makerspaces. They are also responsible for identifying, designing, and implementing curriculum that breaks down subject-specific information silos to promote learning across STEM disciplines, while supporting differentiated instruction. Teachers and administrators are ultimately on the front lines of creating a culture that fosters inclusion and equity so that students of all races, languages, genders, and abilities can engage in STEM.
Government and Policymakers: Policymakers at all levels — including lobbyists, local school boards, state and federal lawmakers, political action committees, and think tanks — are responsible for pursuing research-based initiatives that support the students, primary caregivers, and educators in meeting their responsibilities. They are also charged with appropriately funding their policies and listening to feedback from an inclusive array of stakeholders to ensure that STEM education continues to evolve “for the many” in our rapidly changing world.
Businesses and Manufacturers: Finally, many for-profit businesses and manufacturers are engaged in STEM education and must do so responsibly. A major tech company providing 1-to-1 laptops to schools with the hope of building a long-term partnership is charged with practicing ethical capitalism that doesn't sacrifice educational outcomes for profit. STEM tools, gadgets, toys, and other deliverables should be aimed at enhancing a rich learning experience rather than at locking users into a single, long-term “solution,” often with self-serving motives that do not prioritize the needs of the end user.
A model company that authentically supports STEM education is hand2mind, which offers a portfolio of products rooted in pedagogical merit prioritizing a rich user experience rather than pursuing easy licensing partnerships, gimmicky trends, and quick profits. This company has created valuable student and teacher resources, while developing products that encourage students to learn using real-world, hands-on activities, resulting in open-ended STEM learning.
Imagining a Better Future Through STEM
All STEM education stakeholders are interwoven, and everyone has a role to play in cultivating holistic teaching and learning opportunities for all. If those actively engaging with learners at home and in school are doing their part, but governments and corporations fail to lead by example, it will be difficult to achieve the outcomes that our current and future generations deserve. It will also place unnecessary pressure on those pursuing STEM careers as they work to fit in and provide for themselves economically.
STEM education that doesn’t take into consideration the greater good ultimately finds its way into our homes and classrooms in the form of bad policy, wasteful spending, ineffective practice, and lost opportunity — no matter how much primary caregivers and education professionals resist. Everyone counts. In other words, by acknowledging and applying an actionable ethics in STEM education framework, we could go beyond imagining STEM’s potential and see a massive boost to our collective prosperity on a global scale.