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Social justice, place, and equitable science education: Broadening urban students’ opportunities to learn


Equitable science instruction increases minority students’ science knowledge and interest

This study is set in the context of the social justice concern of underrepresentation of minority students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in college and in the workforce. This study is based on an understanding that preparation for a career in science must start at the elementary level. In response to this concern, a group of scientists and teacher educators worked together to provide place-based, informal science instruction to predominantly African American and Latino children in Colorado.

The program was implemented in two phases. Phase 1 – referred to as “Saturday Academy” – provided 10 hours of instruction which focused on geology and dinosaurs and included a simulated dinosaur dig at Dinosaur Ridge. Phase 2 consisted of a weeklong summer day camp and included field trips to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver Botanic Garden, and Rocky Mountain National Park. The focus of Phase 2 was on emergency preparedness, composting, soil, and climate change.

There were 33 participants for Phase 1 and 34 for Phase 2. Two research questions guided this study: (1) How did the participants’ content knowledge and interest in geoscience change after participating in the Saturday Academy and summer camp? (2) What themes emerged in each informal science education setting and how do they inform teachers, outdoor educators, and researchers about the opportunity to learn science?

Tests and work samples were used to assess change in content knowledge, while questionnaires, informal discussions, and focus group interviews were used to examine student interest in science. Science content learning was also demonstrated by students’ engagement in science activities such as classifying and identifying rock and mineral samples. Overall results indicated that student interest in science was generally positive and knowledge gain was evident during and after both phases of the program.

Some of the students’ comments regarding their program experiences have implications for science education. One is recognizing the importance of providing hands-on activities and exhibits, and including informal education experiences. Students in both settings indicated that they enjoyed the field trips more than working in traditional classroom settings. Another implication is recognizing that some students’ fear and lack of interest in nature or the natural environment may be a barrier to learning. Preparing students in advance for what they might see and experience in unfamiliar settings could be helpful in dealing with this concern. The researchers also emphasize the need to learn from students and respect their preferences for the outdoors, particularly if they are more accustomed to indoor activities and urban settings.

Overall, the researchers conclude that the experiences of both the Saturday Academy and Day Camp were novel and empowering for the students “and likely influenced their interest about science in ways that science classrooms and textbooks could not.” They also state that “place and informal learning environments are important factors to consider in science education.”


Leonard, J., Chamberlin, S.A., Johnson, J.B., Verma, G., (2016). Social justice, place, and equitable science education: Broadening urban students’ opportunities to learn. Urban Review, 48, 355-379.


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