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Weaving people and history into STEM education

08 Jan 2020 | Prof Nazira Karodia Nazira Karodia, Dean of Science and Engineering and Professor of Science Education at the University of Wolverhampton, explores issues in “decolonising” the STEM curriculum ahead of her keynote at the STEM Conference 2020 - “Scientists traversing boundaries: STEM education is social education”.

There is a kerfuffle in academia about decolonising the curriculum - what does it mean? What is to be included and how is it to be included? Who should make the decisions? Is there a hierarchy of ‘relevant’ knowledge? Is there enough knowledge? How does it affect STEM disciplines differently from social and humanities studies?

I don’t have definite answers to these important questions and, increasingly, am becoming wary of some who position themselves as ‘decolonising’ experts. The issue of decolonising the curriculum is itself in danger of being colonised. The issues are complex and saturated with histories of prejudice, exclusion, exploitation, racism and patriarchy. For those who feel keenly, these are issues of lived experience, pain and struggle.

At an elementary level, the decolonisation project urges the inclusion of the knowledge and texts into the curriculum to be studied as equivalent to the mainstream Western traditions. This hopes to grant world knowledge an acknowledgement of validity; it is also a redress to exploitative colonisation. Different role models, culturally relevant texts and alternative histories grant students from historically excluded backgrounds a grip on what they are studying and provide others with a breadth lacking in the One Tradition story and development in Western academia.

Sourcing alternative texts and excluded histories is easier in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Though emancipatory texts and movements from the ‘under-developed’ world have been around for almost a century, their inclusion into academia has been slow, which tells more about the resistance in Western academia than the merit of the works. There is still an irritating meme of judging other cultures as exotic influences on Western culture: the influence of Africa on early 20th Century Western imagery, the inspiration of Japanese art, the influence of Arab mathematics and medicine in the development of western science. This, rather than a study of the Arab, African or Japanese cultures for itself. Perhaps in learning not only texts from the ‘colonies’, but of the struggle of how these texts are studied and how they came to be included, a student begins to appreciate different and equally valid systems of knowledge, which is an aim of the ‘decolonisation’ drive.

My field is STEM education and the STEM subjects have greater awkwardness about how to incorporate knowledge not in the development of Western science. Five hundred years ago da Vinci understood the blood circulatory system but his discoveries, unacceptable to a conservative Church, he suppressed. This knowledge does not feed into the development of Western science. The detailed astronomical knowledge of pre-colonial Central and South America does not insert into the development of Western astronomy. This begs a question: while we normally study the ‘development’ of science, that is Western science and its influences from Arab, Indian, Greek and Egyptian sources, we are only looking at one world development, albeit, the most influential in modern history. There is a rich source of new inspiration and wonder in exploring those cultures that did not influence modern science. Archaeology has known this for a while.

Some forms of ‘native’ knowledge are of practical use. Plant and medicinal properties in nature could aid us in new drugs, medicine generally and new environmental guardianship. A key feature of non-Western knowledge often seems to be applicability. Pacific Islanders’ knowledge of currents, wind and astronomy was integral to their everyday culture. Again, we can but wonder at what, at first, may seem exotic.

So far I have been talking about inclusions in the curriculum which, for many, is the keystone of decolonising the curriculum. I want to move the debate onto how we teach, how our students learn, in other words the learning experience and environment rather than a narrow focus of subject material. Merely selecting new stuff to study, interesting as that may be, is insufficient for decolonisation. Perhaps, merely incorporating the different tames it, colonises it in a new way, and vitiates its vigour. How we do things is, for me, of greater significance.

Here I stress the urgency of student agency in learning, students taking charge of aspects of their learning, fashioning their study, of course, under tutorship; greater interactive learning and that interaction not just with teachers but the student’s peers. We learn alone and we learn communally. There are subject disciplines and bodies of knowledge and expertise and students learn to navigate that, testing, exploring, weighing and selecting directions. This is not new from decolonisation. Marxist analysis of education early in the last century pointed the way. Feminist analysis and later LGBT awareness added this desire to take charge of learning and life. This is now recognised in Western academia, less acknowledged is the impetus from anti-racist work and the challenging work of activists in the ‘third’ world.  The decolonisation debate, even in this detail, re-emerges.


Nazira remembers growing up under Apartheid in South Africa, an experience that sharpens her vision of striving for fairness in society, specifically through education with a stress on STEM education. She is a Chemist with wide interests including green chemistry, gender equality and widening access to higher education.

The STEM Conference 2020 in Manchester was a two-day conference held on 29-30 January highlighting cutting-edge pedagogies, innovations and research taking place across the STEM sector through a variety of peer-led sessions.


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