Science and Social Justice: Making the Case for Case Studies

By Chamany, Katayoun | Journal of College Science Teaching, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Science and Social Justice: Making the Case for Case Studies


Chamany, Katayoun, Journal of College Science Teaching


Byline: Katayoun Chamany

I joined the faculty of Eugene Lang College (ELC), the undergraduate division of The New School for Social Research, in 1997 because I found the mission of the college and the seminar approach to learning refreshing. This mission echoes that of the larger university in which the college is situated. The New School for Social Research was founded by academics interested in portraying a balanced view of social science with a specific emphasis on issues of equality and justice. Excited by the prospect of teaching in an environment with a long history of educational innovation, I set out to create a series of courses that would incorporate issues of race, class, and gender into the biology curriculum. Having taught only in traditional science departments designed to educate future biologists or medical professionals, the task of designing a program from scratch in this setting was a welcome challenge. Most of all, I looked forward to continuing my own education in areas that I hadn't been able to fully explore as a student. Connecting biology to cultural studies, urban policy, ethics, and political science lured me away from family, friends, and colleagues on the West Coast. Though my training as a yeast geneticist and cell biologist provided me with the disciplinary expertise to teach, my educational experience did not prepare me for the obstacles I would encounter.

On the first day of my very first class at ELC, halfway through the session two students stood up and thanked me for a lively and enthusiastic presentation of my research, announced that they were thoroughly disinterested, and walked out of the class. Stunned, I quickly realized that if I was going to successfully engage these socially minded students, I needed to make the biology meaningful, and from day one. To help me achieve this goal, my associate dean encouraged me to attend the Case Studies in Science summer workshop at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and it was there that I began to develop case studies in science that centered on issues of social justice.

Though many undergraduates accept that a basic understanding of science and math is essential in order to become a contributing member of society, they often can't articulate why. The relevance is lost on them, so they reluctantly register for science and math distribution requirements. Students at ELC present an added challenge because many of them have preconceived opinions about scientific research, seen through the critical lens of the social sciences, such as medical anthropology and cultural sociology. To attract and maintain the interest of this diverse student body, I not only had to make the study of biology meaningful, I had to speak to these criticisms directly.

Case studies and social justice issues

I decided to develop case studies that would help students view science through the eyes of scientists with humanitarian interests. I chose problems that would entice students to engage with the scientific material through exercises that required an evaluation of scientific research and its applications in a socially responsible manner. Because my students are coming to class aware of the ways in which medical and biological research have been co-opted to promote racial prejudices, the cases need to do two things: address the ethics of past abuses such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Trial and stereotypes stemming from the Social Darwinism movement; and demonstrate how science could be used as a tool to achieve social justice.

By tweaking existing case studies, I was able to make connections to present day concerns that instill in students a need to understand the scientific, and not just the ethical, dimensions of these stories. In one of my international health courses, I use the Tuskegee case as an important point of reference during an analysis of the standard of care debates surrounding clinical trials for HIV treatment of pregnant women (Bayer and Fairchild 1999). …

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