What is social justice in science education? Expanding possibilities for school science
Sara Tolbert

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Arizona

Primary Discipline

Science Education
There is a growing literature base on how researchers can facilitate socially just science learning experiences for/with minoritized students and their teachers. Yet, this work demonstrates that due to rigid institutional constraints, teachers are rarely able to sustain the reforms after the research has been completed. Few studies reveal how science teachers, and their students, are agents not only constituted by institutional constraints but also capable of acting upon and within them. To address this underexplored avenue, I conduct multiple case studies of science teaching with social-justice minded teachers across four different classroom and community contexts.Drawing from research in social justice and feminist science education, I investigate how these teachers work within interstitial spaces (Hussenius et al., 2016), acting as carriers who “loosen boundaries” to teach science for social justice, despite prevailing material and discursive conditions that position them and their students as failing in science and science education. Findings from these case studies reveal how teachers leverage multi-dimensional aspects of justice, pedagogy, caring, ethics, science, and community to create opportunities for socially transformative science education from marginalized social, political, and economic locations—highlighting the nuanced ways that “agency emerges from the margins of power” (Butler, 1997).
About Sara Tolbert
Sara Tolbert, University of Arizona Sara Tolbert is Assistant Professor of Science Education in the Teaching, Learning, & Sociocultural Studies Department at the University of Arizona’s College of Education. Dr. Tolbert received a Ph.D. in Education (Focus Areas: Social & Cultural Contexts of Education/Science Education/Teacher Education) from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2011. Dr. Tolbert draws from critical and feminist theories to create and investigate contextually authentic and justice-oriented approaches to science education. She partners with secondary science teachers to investigate the impact of leveraging local and global justice issues in science education on students’ experiences in school science and their sense of sociopolitical control in socioscientific problems and challenges. She has also collaborated on the design of new transformative models for science teacher education that are responsive to the needs, hopes, and dreams of marginalized students and communities. Before pursuing her Ph.D., Dr. Tolbert taught science and sheltered science in formal and informal settings in the South Bronx, NY, Atlanta, GA, South Auckland (Papatoetoe), New Zealand, and Latin America.

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