Kirchgasler, Weeth Feinstein share science education expertise with attendees of UW System Chemistry Faculties Meeting

The UW–Madison Department of Chemistry recently hosted the 2023 University of Wisconsin System Chemistry Faculties Meeting. The event drew about 70 faculty and staff from 11 different UW System institutions to Madison Nov. 3-4 for a range of opportunities to engage and learn with and from each other.

As part of the event, Noah Weeth Feinstein and Katie Kirchgasler — two science education faculty members with the UW–Madison School of Education’s highly regarded Department of Curriculum and Instruction — each delivered thematic presentations to those in attendance.


“Their trailblazing scholarship on worthwhile goals for science education and the manufacture of hierarchies in STEM schooling has transformed how I think about problems in teaching and learning,” says Ryan Stowe, an assistant professor with the Department of Chemistry and the director of the Stowe Group.

Weeth Feinstein delivered a presentation on Nov. 3 around the topic of: “Three ideas that are (probably) more useful than science literacy: competent outsiders, epistemic networks, and appropriate respect.” 

“The phrase ‘science literacy’ has carried the hopes and ambitions of our field for the better part of a century — but it may be time to move on,” Weeth Feinstein says. “What other ideas can help us understand the value of science education for society? What assumptions must we challenge in response to intersecting threats to democracy, to peace and justice, and to the climate and ecological stability on which our cultures are built?”

Weeth Feinstein

Weeth Feinstein introduced three concepts that might help define more specific goals for science education. He explained: 

  • “Competent outsiders” are people who recognize when science has some bearing on their needs and interact with sources of scientific expertise in ways that help them achieve their own goals.
  • “Epistemic networks” are interlinked sets of people who support sensemaking by providing new information and aiding in the interpretation and reconstruction of scientific knowledge in context.
  • And “appropriate respect” means giving weight and bounded credibility to scientific claims and institutions when relevant and with knowledge of limitations.

On Nov. 4, Kirchgasler presented on, “The manufacture of hierarchies in STEM higher education: Why our fields’ forgotten histories matter today.”


“STEM education scholars have recently spotlighted two concerns — the exclusion of minoritized students via curricular tracking and assimilationist norms faced by students who do gain access to advanced coursework and careers,” says Kirchgasler.

Kirchgasler explains how these two issues are often talked about separately, by either attempting to broaden participation within a status quo system, or by expanding what counts as the chemistry to be learned (for example, the scientific and sociopolitical dimensions of environmental racism or health inequities).

“Paradoxically, both well-intentioned approaches may create unintended consequences,” Kirchgasler says.

Her presentation then examined how chemistry education started manufacturing hierarchies of students and then matching them with hierarchies of scientific content. Kirchgasler explains how 19th and early 20th-century eugenic assumptions became built into instructional practices — and she then spotlights scholars of postsecondary STEM education who are working to redress the field’s exclusionary mechanisms.

“From conversations with many of the attendees, Noah’s and Katie’s talks provoked deep introspection about our goals for chemistry education, the legacies of schooling structures we perpetuate, and how we can create more meaningful learning environments for everyone in our courses,” says Stowe.

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