published February 7, 2013

Why Integrate Human Rights into STEM Education?

Jessica M. Wyndham
Associate Director, Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Human rights are a part of most domestic law, they are an important element in foreign policy engagement, and they are increasingly permeating debates on issues of vital social, economic, political, religious and cultural importance. Consequently, to teach students about human rights is to help build an informed, responsible and respectful citizenry. But are there reasons for which science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students, in particular, should be taught human rights? I would argue that there are at least four reasons: (1) to recognize how their STEM expertise can be used to address human rights challenges; (2) as a framework for learning about the responsible conduct of research and to recognize the broader impacts of science, including dual-use considerations; and (3) because STEM students consider a range of careers, including non-research careers that may include direct engagement with human rights issues.

As previously outlined in this series, there are several connections between science and human rights. Human rights provide a framework within which to teach students about the social applications of their training. Human rights also provide a framework with which to train students on their scientific and social responsibilities, including to ask questions such as –What are the risks associated with involvement in this research? Might there be unintended negative impacts of applying these technologies? Which groups are benefitting from our research and which groups are being neglected?

At the same time, integrating human rights into STEM education is recognition of the many and varied career paths being chosen by STEM graduates. A survey conducted in 2008 by four researchers at UC, San Francisco revealed that graduate students are strongly considering a range of career options, with one quarter identifying non-research careers as their top preference and three-quarters strongly considering such careers. Among chosen alternative career paths were the following categories: business of science, teaching- or education-related, science policy, and writing (Fuhrmann, C.N. et. al., 'Improving Graduate Education to Support a Branching Career Pipeline').

Finally, to teach STEM students human rights may be to address one of the greatest contemporary challenges in the STEM education system – retention. An article in the New York Times on November 4, 2011 questioned the way in which science and math are currently taught. Pointing to the approximately 40 percent of engineering and science majors who end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree, the article pointed the finger at the way in which science is taught (Drew, C., 'Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It's Just So Darn Hard)').

For several years there has been a growing recognition of the need to rethink the way science is taught, particularly to focus on inquiry-based science curricula. The connections between science and human rights lend themselves to scenario-, problem-, and case-based teaching practices. However, this change will not occur without other systemic changes including the provision of funding to support innovative teaching methods, training in how to apply these teaching methods is made part of standard professional development opportunities, and metrics are created to measure the progress and impact of integrating human rights into STEM curricula.