Striving for social justice in STEM education: An interview with UC Berkeley professor and CalTeach lecturer Mark Spencer

Students work in the College of Chemistry. CalTeach aims to integrate social justice with STEM education.
Ketki Samel/File

Beyond laboratory experiments and mathematical formulas, STEM classrooms foster a productive exchange that can empower a student to enact change in their community. And any student should have access to this opportunity, regardless of their socioeconomic or cultural background.

With this goal in mind, CalTeach at UC Berkeley strives to equip undergraduate students with the necessary experiences to become effective educators in STEM fields. This is largely accomplished via community outreach to local schools, where students gain hands-on experience working in classrooms.

The program, however, does more than offer a minor or credential. CalTeach is part of a larger institute, called UTeach, which has a social justice mission of filling an education gap deemed in need of closing.

I had the chance to interview Mark Spencer, a CalTeach lecturer who has been a formative contributor to the program since it was first established at UC Berkeley in 2005. Spencer spoke to the accomplishments of the program thus far and, more largely, the impact it is ultimately striving to make on STEM education.

The Daily Californian: Given there was already an education minor offered at UC Berkeley, why was CalTeach started?

Mark Spencer: There was recognition that teacher training had gotten pushed to the CSUs, and we were missing out on the opportunity to get the best mathematicians and best scientists in the classroom. If you’re a math or science major at UC Berkeley, your only option (would have been) the education minor and then another program later to get your credential. So you’re looking at a whole other year or two (of education) … whereas, with CalTeach, this is something you can get done in your four years alongside your math or science major.

DC: Are the social justice developments to the CalTeach curriculum specific to the UC Berkeley program?

MS: Berkeley views access to math and science education as a social justice issue. We want students to have the tools they need to make a difference in the community. … (For example,) they can do air quality testing, analyze traffic patterns, develop an algorithm to increase the efficiency of carpooling at their school site. … All of those things are social justice.

DC: How does CalTeach structure its program to integrate social justice?

MS: I’ve been with CalTeach from the beginning, and it’s been a core part of the program to get our students thinking: What does it means to teach in a classroom? What does it mean to be working with students who are low-income? Who are first-generation? Who don’t have English as their first language? Have suffered from trauma? Any number of things. So for CalTeach … we (want to) get our students out in local classrooms and spend time with students to get to know them and their situations. We want to emphasize how you can’t teach anything until you know who your students are … until you know what challenges they face … until you know what they had for breakfast that morning. … On top of that, we want people who are in math and science … and to have Cal-level students involved in teaching is an amazing thing.

DC: Can you tell me a bit about your course, “Project-Based Instruction”?

MS: It is one of the last courses in the program, the intent being that students will have spent a lot of time in the classroom and seen the reality of what students and teachers face in these Bay Area schools. … My high school had students sitting in rows, with the teacher at the front, and we scribbled down notes and did problem sets. And all of that worked just fine for me … but I think what we recognize is that for many people in our state, that is not a system that works. So project-based instruction is really asking the question of: “What kind of work can we engage our students with that they will find meaningful? And (what) will make an actual difference in their community?” And more importantly, asking how can we connect that engaging type of work with the curriculum so that at the end of the day, our students are still learning the math that they need to learn. … And the final project (of the course) is pulling it all together. … This is really one of the big outreach things Cal is offering in the local community.

DC: What are some examples of this project-based instruction?

MS: Some of the projects that have been tackled … (include) looking at water usage in schools to see how much water are we are actually using. Once we’ve come up with this answer, we can get this changed, and (for example,) buy some washers and get those leaks fixed. … We’ve also had students develop proposals for their schools to get solar panels on their roofs (after studying) the economics of solar panels (and the) capital (it will take) to put the roof to use.

DC: Can you speak to any research efforts currently being made within the program?

MS: Because we are a UC program, a big part of CalTeach is not just “let’s go out and do some good things.” (We want to) actually spend some time studying what we’re doing to make sure that things are happening the way we think they’re happening. There’s definitely a research element to see what’s working and what’s not working, both from the perspective of our CalTeach participants, but also from the perspective of what difference they are making at the local schools.

DC: As an educator, what do you think California, and more broadly, the whole country, has the most work to do on in terms of STEM education?

MS: This really is (why) CalTeach and other UTeaches around the country got started. It’s that our STEM education really hasn’t gotten the resources or attention it needs. … It’s really (about) faculty coming together and realizing that if we don’t do something about this generation of students coming onto our campuses (who) aren’t going to be able to do the math and science that our country needs them to do — and not to say that English, history, and economics don’t have value, because they do … but, if you’ve seen the news, (you know that there’s) a heck of a time finding qualified math and science teachers. … I think the challenge we face as a country is that math majors and science majors haven’t been exposed to teaching and haven’t figured out if this is something that they like or don’t like. … We’re improving the level of discourse about what it means to be a teacher in a high school classroom but also what it means to be a teacher at Cal. I think there’s been a number of faculty in CalTeach who have taken what they’ve learned in (being a part of) CalTeach and brought it into their own courses at Cal. … They’re a better teacher because they’ve been thinking about what it means to be a teacher.

Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected]

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