Curriculum Design for Equity and Excellence

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.

Social Justice and Education

Institutions have long recognized that educational experiences must contribute to creating a more just world (Gutstein, 2003; Marshall, 2010; Mete, 2010; AAC&U, 2015). To this end, many curricula include topics such as social responsibility, community service, equity, ethics, cultural values, social justice, global perspectives, diversity, tolerance, and sustainability (Bosanquet et al., 2012; AAC&U 2015).

The breadth of topics, complexity of outcomes, and diversity of pedagogical approaches make it difficult to develop a single framework for describing and analyzing social justice curricula, therefore scholars use different frameworks depending on the context of the study (Gutstein, 2003; Mete, 2010; Bosanquet et al., 2012). One approach is to conceptualize social justice curricula on the basis of the outcome, thus, a curriculum can be designed such that it is about social justice or for social justice (Bosanquet et al., 2012). The former aims to educate students about social justice issues thereby improving student awareness of the same. Examples of activities that fall in this category include learning about culturally diverse perspectives or understanding indigenous peoples’ history (Bosanquet et al., 2012). The latter is designed for social justice, thus including activities for cultivating tolerance, encouraging social responsibility, etc. (Bosanquet et al., 2012).

Alternatively, social justice curricula may be analyzed on the basis of the level of engagement required from the students, ranging from high to low (Bosanquet et al., 2012). Some curricular activities, such as those designed simply to expose students to social issues, require fairly low levels of engagement. These activities serve to increase student awareness or understanding of social issues, but may require only modest investment of time and energy. On the other hand, certain activities may be designed to train students to take action or evaluate social issues critically, requiring a higher investment of time and energy.

Impact of Social Justice Curriculum on Student Development

Student development in the course of a social justice curriculum would depend on the nature of the curriculum and the level of engagement (see above). Ratts et al. (2010) applied the social justice model to describe the development of subjects of counseling in terms of five distinct dimensions. They suggest these five dimensions to be (1) naiveté, (2) multicultural integration, (3) liberatory critical consciousness, (4) empowerment, and (5) social justice advocacy. According to this framework a “naïve” subject is unaware of the role of social conditions in their lived experiences. In the second and third dimensions, the subject becomes more aware of social issues, is able to incorporate diverse perspectives into their way of understanding the world, and has a “critical consciousness” about the world with deeper political, social, and historical roots. In the fourth and fifth stages, subjects become equipped to advocate for social justice. We suggest that these dimensions apply to the process of student development equally, thus an ideal social justice curriculum should aspire to move students from naiveté to empowerment and social justice advocacy.

Social Justice and Science Curriculum Design

In recent years, more and more educators, including STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) educators, have recognized the urgent need to redesign STEM curricula, to promote social justice and not just teach science literacy (Gutstein, 2003; Marshall, 2010; Mete, 2010; AAC&U, 2015). Often this stems from recognizing two major issues that plague science education in the US: 1) the problem of underrepresentation of certain groups, such as minorities and women, and 2) the achievement gap between students from different backgrounds with respect to socioeconomic status, race, and gender (Mete, 2010; AAC&U, 2015).

Others such as Marshall (2010) describe the rationale for STEM reform in broader terms, stating that the goal is to create learning conditions “essential for igniting and nurturing 21st-century global STEM minds—ways of learning and thinking that dare to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.” She identifies the following skills for an effective STEM education: 1) disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking, 2) problem-solving, 3) system design, and 4) ethical leadership (Marshall 2010). Many institutions have adapted STEM programs characterized by the above features. Gutstein (2003) describes a math curriculum reform with the goal of social justice, which was crafted to help students understand, formulate, and address questions around social issues, and formulate analyses. This was accomplished via project-based learning, such that students learned math content through real world problems. Aside from developing math literacy, this social justice curriculum also developed positive cultural/social identity and social agency among students (Gutstein 2003). Mete (2010) outlines a curriculum reform which included changes such as small learning communities and grant programs that were open to all students (regardless of grades). The new curriculum was developed based on the recognition that pedagogy for social justice needs to be more inclusive and involve community development, individual identity development, and interest-based learning (Mete, 2010). The above illustrate examples of frameworks for social justice-oriented STEM curricula adapted in K-12 education.

Recently, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) recommended that college curricula should emphasize key “essential learning outcomes,” including effective communication, problem solving, ethical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, a broad knowledge of history and cultures, and a “signature” project (such as research experience), along with pedagogies for active and collaborative learning, for a high quality education aimed at promoting “equity” and “excellence” (AAC&U, 2015).

The HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) Program at Spelman

Spelman College is a historically Black women’s college located in Atlanta, Georgia, and a leader among liberal arts colleges (U.S. News & World Report, 2015). Spelman is currently the top-ranking HBCU (Niche, 2016). The college has a rigorous liberal arts curriculum with a focus on interdisciplinarity and integrative learning, culminating in a capstone research project. Spelman College has had continuous HHMI funding since 1991 for a variety of STEM initiatives. These innovative initiatives include both curricular and co-curricular pieces. Together they are designed to encourage undergraduate students in science exploration and prepare them for successful scientific careers. These programs have contributed to Spelman’s status as one of the nation’s top producers of minority female PhDs. Here we summarize some of the major initiatives and describe how they correspond to social justice curricula as described in the previous sections.

Creating a broad skills-based curriculum: A major goal of the HHMI Program at Spelman has been curricular development in STEM disciplines. Starting in 2006, the biology department at Spelman undertook a curriculum revision to make the entire four-year curriculum student-centered and skills-based. All classes employed active learning and collaborative learning strategies, and most courses intentionally focused on one of the four skills of reading, presenting, writing, or doing science. The foundation for this rigorous training is set up in the four-course introductory sequence and the required biology seminar course (Table 1). As seen in Table 1, the biology curriculum revision made it more suited for a social justice agenda. Specifically, the active learning, student-centered pedagogies, such as case studies, flipped classes, studio models, interdisciplinary modules, and a focus on skill development, are ideal for student growth as agents for social change (AAC&U, 2015). The use of case studies in courses (Pai, 2009; Pai et al., 2010) as well as in the sophomore-senior seminar, which typically places science in the context of social issues (Chamany, 2006), promotes AAC&U-recommended “essential learning outcomes,” such as ethical reasoning, analytical thinking, and communication (AAC &U, 2015). Note also the enrollment numbers, which show that this novel curriculum has benefitted hundreds of Spelman students since its launch in 2006.

Table 1. Required courses in the revised biology curriculum reflecting elements that promote social justice. The mode of instruction is mentioned to reflect correspondence to social justice curriculum design guidelines from the AAC&U (2015). Enrollment and student background is mentioned to indicate the impact of these courses. Note that elements that are either about or for social justice are underlined.

CourseInstruction method and skill focusEnrollmentStudent
Bio110: Ecology and evolutionCase study-based, blended class focused on reading skills110Biology majors only
Bio115: Organismal form and functionStudio model class with interdisciplinary modules focused on presentation skills180Biology majors and pre-med students
Bio120: Cellular mechanisms and functionStudio model, flipped class focused on writing skills180Biology majors and pre-med students
Bio125: Molecular biologyProject-based class focused on developing scientific research skills80Biology majors only
Bio285/485: Sophomore/Senior Biology SeminarCapstone course to build community and students’ scientific identity via exploration of science issues that concern society140Biology majors only

Providing research experiences within the curriculum: In the next phase of the biology curriculum revision starting in 2009, the electives were enhanced by incorporating course-based research experiences. Thus over the course of this revision many new electives were developed that taught content through the medium of research projects in the faculty member’s expertise (Table 2). This served to strengthen student development for such “essential learning outcomes” as problem-solving, quantitative reasoning, and analytical thinking (AAC&U, 2015). In addition, curriculum revision provided more students with the opportunity to conduct “signature work” in the form of an authentic research project (AAC&U, 2015). Table 2 suggests that within three years of introducing course-based research large numbers of students (and faculty) benefitted from it.

Table 2: Impact of research projects in biology electives in the first three years after introducing course-based research.

Elements of assessmentAY 2009-2010AY 2010-2011AY 2011-2012
Number of courses (~14 electives are offered each year8913
Number of faculty (out of 12)657
Student enrollments (out of ~150 juniors and seniors)564698
Number of student posters at Spelman College Research Day133040
Number of student posters at conferences outside of Spelman749

Developing research excellence: The current award, which started in 2012, like the previous awards supports student researcher development, advisement, support, and training. Additionally, it promotes student curiosity and science literacy through two undergraduate research training programs (a cohort program and a mentoring program) that provide research opportunities for students both on and off campus. The overall focus of the program is to promote excellence in research. This is achieved not only through the aforementioned research training programs, but also through innovative research and grant competitions. The research competition is sponsored by industry partners with a view to preparing students directly for the STEM workforce. These research experiences demanding high quality research, often in a real world context, provide “signature experiences” (AAC&U 2015) that promote student development as social justice agents. Our tracking efforts reveal that in the last 15 years a total of 185 students have benefitted from the research mentoring programs. Out of this group, 50 have already completed their advanced degrees and 85 are still currently enrolled in advanced degree programs.

The program also has a strong emphasis on creating interdisciplinarity in STEM curricula. Thus far six different faculty members in four different STEM departments have developed interdisciplinary science modules that have been taught in 10 different STEM courses, thereby impacting hundreds of Spelman students


The curricular and co-curricular initiatives described above have incorporated almost all the elements recommended by the AAC&U (2015), as well as by Marshall (2010), Mete (2010), and others, for a STEM curriculum designed to increase equity and excellence. This range of experiences transforms students to have a higher “critical consciousness,” or to become “agents” for social change. Moreover, the biggest and most measurable impact of these experiences is that they have consistently trained students to become competent STEM practitioners. Thus, by increasing persistence of an underrepresented minority group in STEM pathways, these efforts have contributed significantly to promoting social equity.


AAC&U. (2015). Committing to equity and inclusive excellence: A campus guide for self-study and planning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

Bosanquet, A., Winchester-Seeto, T., and Rowe, A. (2012). Social inclusion, graduate attributes and higher education curriculum. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 6(2), A73-A87.

Chamany, K. (2006). Science and social justice: Making the case for case studies. Journal of College Science Teaching. 36(2), 54-59.

Gutstein, E. (2003). Teaching and learning mathematics for social justice in an urban, Latino school. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 34(1), 37-73.

Marshall, S.P. (2010). Re-imagining specialized STEM academies: Igniting and nurturing ‘decidedly different minds,’ by design. Roeper Review: A Journal on Gifted Education, 32(1), 48-60.

Mete, R.J. (2010). Can stem initiatives be social justice oriented: An analysis of urban school reform via smaller learning communities (Master’s thesis). University of Maryland, College Park.

Niche. (2016). HBCU schools rich history and relevance today. Niche. Retrieved from “

Pai, A. (2009). ‘Evolution in action’ a case study based advanced biology class at Spelman College. Journal of Effective Teaching, 9, 54-68.

Pai, A., Benning, T., Woods, N., Chu, J., McGinnis, M., Netherton, J., & Bauerle, C. (2010). Lessons from a case study based freshman class at a black women’s college. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40, 32-39.

Ratts, M.J., Anthony, L., & Santos, K.N.T. (2010). The dimensions of social justice model: Transforming traditional group work into a socially just framework. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 35(2), 160-168.

U.S. News & World Report. (2015). National liberal arts colleges rankings. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from

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Spring 2016: Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community