Cultural Connections


Science and engineering are human activities and, as such, are inherently social processes. Science is about understanding the natural world. It involves seeing patterns and relationships within an empirically based conceptual framework. All cultures engage in understanding their world, and all cultures makes contributions to science. However, perceptions of who does science often reference a stereotypical image of an Einstein character: bespectacled, male, white, absent-minded, dressed in a lab-coat.

While national documents laud the notion of Science for All, they often do not point the way to cultural inclusion. When they do, these sections receive little attention. For example, the AAAS Benchmarks and Atlas for Science Literacy describe three basic types of scientific investigations: observational investigations, classification investigations, and experimental investigations. In a variety of disciplines, experimental investigations–those that seek to tightly control variables through dependent and independent variables–have taken on a prominent role over the past few decades . And yet this form of investigation is heavily influenced by a Eurowestern perspective of science. Indigenous ways of knowing, especially in many Native American traditions, understanding of the natural world comes from deep, highly contextualized observations of living things in their environments. In this perspective, one could not learn anything meaningful about an animal like the leech, for example, by taking it out of its context and isolating it from nature.


Why is making cultural connections with students important?

a) Reconstructing the Nature and Culture of Science: In contrast to common portrayals of the STEM disciplines solely as particular bodies of knowledge and/or processes of inquiry and design, in making cultural connections, it is important to focus on the nature and culture of STEM. Nature and culture refers to epistemology, or the discipline-specific ways of knowing, that include values, beliefs, and structures inherent to STEM knowledge and its development. The research literature suggests that traditional societal and classroom portrayals of the Nature of Science (NOS) may be alienating for many girls and members of other underrepresented groups (Capobianco, 2007; Richmond et al., 1998). Research also shows that students and teachers do not develop a more modern understanding of NOS unless it is explicitly taught in ways that both encourage learners to identify with and actively critique the STEM disciplines (Lederman, 1999, 2007). In particular, a focus on science as tentative, subjective, creative, and socially and culturally embedded stands in stark contrast to a positivist approach to science as certain, objective, strictly rational, and universal. Incorporation of feminist perspectives on the nature of science, for example that western science brings with it traditional western notions of masculinity that may alienate girls (Haraway, 1988 and Brickhouse, 2001), further broadens this critique. In addition, comparisons among the natures of science, math, and technology/engineering allow for a deeper understanding of the similarities and differences between the disciplines and ways in which they support one another in STEM learning.

b) Identity: In the analytical domain, the framework of Discourse (Gee, 2008) is used to explore the complex interplay between an individual’s personal and group identities in relation to STEM. In the field of social linguistics, Discourse is defined as an “identity kit” that not only includes language, gestures, tools, and clothing, but also the attitudes, values, and beliefs that undergird the expression of identity. An understanding of Discourse equips practitioners to recognize and mediate conflicts between students’ primary Discourses and the Discourses of both STEM education and STEM professions. Deconstruction of social and cultural notions about what STEM is and who does it ultimately supports the growth of student identities that include “being the kind of people who would want to understand the world scientifically” (Brickhouse et al., 2000, p. 443).

c) Curriculum as a Cultural Artifact: Assimilationist Teaching: a teaching style that operates without regard to the students’ particular cultural characteristics. According to the assimilationist perspective, the teacher’s role is to ensure that students fit into society. And if the teacher has low expectations, the place that the teacher believes the students ‘fit into’ is on society’s lower rungs. (p. 22) Culturally Relevant Teaching uses student culture in order to maintain it and to transcend the negative effects of the dominant culture... Culturally relevant teaching is a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes. These cultural referents are not merely vehicles for bridging or explaining the dominant culture; they are aspects of the curriculum in their own right. (pp. 17–18) Primary source: The Dreamkeepers, by Gloria Ladson Billings, 1994