How postcolonial theory can help shape STEM research


Many recent titles covering the public debate on the role of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public education have highlighted long-standing political grievances.

While some of these debates are probably done in good faith, many are pretexts to resist responsibility for the impacts of racism and colonialism.

But academic theories like CRT, black feminism, and postcolonial theory are also useful in helping us foster student engagement and expand access to education, especially in higher education.

For example, postcolonial theory, which provides a framework for exploring the lingering effects of European colonization, can help us teach science, technology, engineering, and math or STEM to students in a humanizing way.

Taking a postcolonial approach to education means challenging current structures that discriminate against marginalized students while empowering them to work for the collective good.

In addition, higher education institutions have a unique responsibility and opportunity to prepare citizens for civic engagement, cooperation and mutual respect.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania shows that higher education can help students develop their commitment to a democratic society. It’s a double-edged sword for minority students, however. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that these students tend to pursue civic-minded careers, with high odds of unemployment and relatively low wages.

Recognizing these disparities, it is important that minority students participate more in STEM – a growing and relatively lucrative field, and postcolonial theory can help. As critical scholars who have used this theory in our own research on STEM higher education, we postulate that it can rationally shape our definitions.


Often, knowledge from marginalized communities is more easily dismissed as overly emotional or lacking in rigor and therefore irrational. Postcolonial theorists have long criticized the concept of rationality because it is often confused with being Western. Postcolonial theory helps us critique what we see as rational and gives us a new way to configure STEM by applying a critical lens to inquiry.

For example, the native Hawaiians who protested against the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope faced stiff opposition from the scientific community, as they favored ecological preservation rather than the production of knowledge-oriented. industrialization.

In the context of higher education, this dismissal could cause students to miss important innovations in STEM. What innovative ideas and solutions are left out when we label something irrational? We cannot limit rationality to what is most logical in Western societies.

Learning as a cultural process

Second, postcolonial thinking helps us consider ways to be culturally sensitive in our research with and on marginalized communities.

Culturally, learning processes are modeled by academics like Na’ilah Nasir, who is doing innovative work around math education. Nasir and his colleagues argue that learning is a cultural process that involves a set of culturally appropriate tools that help create meaning, purpose, and reiterate values ​​for learners.

There is a need for researchers and practitioners to examine the way other cultures think and write about science and technology, as it helps us think about how we engage and negotiate various situations and humanize people in a world. which aims to speak by ones and zeros.

The teaching of science and technology must evolve to take into account the various scientific traditions in the context of postcolonial projects.

Finally, postcolonial theory helps us envision a collectivist approach to research in STEM education that includes people and the environment. We should teach all STEM learners to approach their work with an ethic of collective concern for others and the planet. The purpose of STEM as an area of ​​inquiry is not just to make life easier for the privileged few. It should be for the betterment of humanity as a whole.

When we approach the STEM inquiry with a postcolonial lens that embraces the collective, we are also able to imagine how futures are possible. This framework helps us to reconsider the value of the collective good.

The future is interdisciplinary

Certainly, critics of the postcolonial approach might not see its usefulness in an area that is ostensibly objective, like STEM. Traditionally, this framework has been used in literary and area studies, so it can be difficult to see its immediate usefulness for subjects like mathematics and engineering. However, there is still value in this approach because interdisciplinary education is the future of higher education.

A diverse cadre of STEM learners is not a panacea for all social ills. However, many of the current structural problems in society – from healthcare to sustainability to housing – cannot be solved without a variety of STEM professionals who are committed to the well-being of all.

Postcolonial theory can and should be part of this effort. Let us continue to advance the field of higher education in this perspective.

Dr Meseret Hailu is Assistant Professor of Higher and Post-Secondary Education in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at MLFTC, Arizona State University. Earl Lee is Director of Student Engagement in the Office of Student Enrollment and Success at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, USA.

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