Crafting an ideologically aware curriculum

by Orlando de Lange

In their recent paper “Teaching the Tough Topics: Fostering Ideological Awareness through the Inclusion of Societally Impactful Topics in Introductory Biology” (Beatty et al. 2021) a team of researchers at Auburn university developed and taught a science in society curriculum, and analyzed student reactions and perceptions through surveys.

I help to run a community biology lab space ( I used to give monthly talks about the societal implications of plant science, and since 2021, in a strange twist, I have found myself in a new research lab studying the sociology of technology. So I figure that if there’s one thing that should be very firmly in my wheelhouse it’s “Science and Society”. And yet, it’s been a real challenge to teach a STEP-WISE course that has a large science and society component. I’m very grateful to be working through it with my co-instructors and mentor, and very keen to learn more about evidence-based approaches for teaching what the AAAS 2011 Vision and Change report outlines as one of the six core competencies for biology undergraduates.

According to Vision and Change, students should understand that “Biology is conducted in a societal context”, that there is a “need for biology to address pressing global problems”, they should be able to “evaluate the impact of scientific discoveries on society”, and the “ethical implications of biological research”. So students should understand the way that society shapes science, society is shaped by science, the pressing global challenges that science can address, and be able to have a working understanding of ethics. This is a lot to expect of students and it’s also a lot to inspect of instructors, particularly since most of us have a solid expertise in biology not “Bioethics” or “Science and Technology Science” or “History and Philosophy of Science”, which are very much their own separate areas of academic research and knowledge.

This is the context through which I read research carried out by Beatty and colleagues to create and evaluate resources around science and society. They were interested in building students Ideological Awareness (IA) – “an understanding of biases, stereotypes, and assumptions that shape contemporary and historical science”. They developed a three-lesson curriculum covering the following: “Unethical Experimentation and Human Rights Evolution”, “Representation in STEM”, and “Intersection of Science and Identity”. In each lesson students studied sources about a real event or person and then wrote a report or gave a class presentation. For example, in the “Intersection of Science and Identity” class students identified a biologist with whom they could identify and who they felt was a role model. Then they wrote a report on the scientist, their work, the personal connection felt by the student and the way the chosen scientists identity and work combined to impact their field.

(Figure reproduced from Beaty et al., 2022 under the under the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License (

The authors extensively analyzed student engagement and reactions, using pre-post surveys in which students wrote open responses to questions, such as “How does science impact social perspectives and problems?” Students found the material engaging and felt that they had gained knowledge about the societal implications of science. However, to the authors’ surprise, the curriculum had no significant effect on students’ self identities as scientists.

One striking result is the extent to which student identities affected the reception of the material. In general, students who identified as PEERs (persons excluded based on their ethnicity or race) felt more positively about all of the modules than the non-PEER students. The authors make clear that conversations about difficult topics are themselves difficult, and different students will engage and react in different ways, but if we simply avoid these topics we do our students and science a disservice.

After reading this paper I feel more committed and more confident about integrating science and society topics into my future biology courses. I also feel inspired to look more into the available curriculum and research into how best to address science and society learning in the biology classroom. A useful resource to this end is the Bioskills guide (Clemmons et al. 2020) which provides clear learning goals to guide classroom implementation for each of the vision and change core competencies. While it may be tricky, I think it’s more than worth it considering the alternative. As Beatty and colleagues point out, the “integration of [ideological awareness] materials in lower-level biology may be students’ only opportunity to discuss the prevalence of biases, stereotypes, and assumptions that shape science”. Science isn’t apolitical or ideologically neutral and if we don’t provide a space for students to confront this reality, who will?

AAAS (2011). Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. Washington, DC: AAAS. Available online at

Beatty, Abby E., Emily P. Driessen, Taylor Gusler, Sharday Ewell, Amy Grilliot, and Cissy J. Ballen. 2021. “Teaching the Tough Topics: Fostering Ideological Awareness through the Inclusion of Societally Impactful Topics in Introductory Biology.” CBE Life Sciences Education 20 (4): ar67.

Clemmons, Alexa W., Jerry Timbrook, Jon C. Herron, and Alison J. Crowe. 2020. “BioSkills Guide: Development and National Validation of a Tool for Interpreting the Vision and Change Core Competencies.” CBE Life Sciences Education 19 (4): ar53.