WGS.160J | Fall 2019 | Undergraduate

Science Activism: Gender, Race, and Power

Syllabus and Calendar

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week; 1.5 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Overview and Goals

This subject investigates scientists whose work moves from research to advocacy to social or political action. Why do scientists engage in activism, what are their goals, how do they work towards those goals, and what is their impact? Because there is no single answer, we will examine these questions through a series of case studies that span a wide range of topics in post-war America.

If the goal of science is to understand and control the natural world, how can a scientist justify actions that may limit the acquisition or application of knowledge? When might a scientist’s duty to speak truth and correct errors justify political action or civil disobedience? Are political action and civil disobedience incompatible with science? What roles do social identity (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) and social power play in science and science activism? The efforts scientists make to answer these questions and similar ones are important for both society and the scientific professions.

Through readings, videos, and guest lectures we will explore a range of personal motivations for scientists to engage in activism through their writing, using their knowledge and status to influence others, creating and working through advocacy organizations, and engaging in protest. In general, activist scientists seek to change public understanding, public policy, and institutional practice. Case studies allow us to explore the relationships between science, ethics, social power, and public engagement and to search for lessons that might generalize to new areas for activism.

The primary goal of this class is to provide a foundation in the history of science activism as told by the activists themselves that will enable participants to understand current and future intersections between science, ethics, gender, race, and public policy. In addition, the class seeks to provide students an opportunity for reflection on their own perspectives on, and role in, these issues.

Requirements and Grading

This course has no prerequisites. Participants are expected to read in advance the materials assigned for each class and to be prepared to discuss them and, where appropriate, to deduce or infer the motivation, methods, and impact of the writer’s or speaker’s activism. A weekly reading guide will be provided to suggest issues and framing questions to be explored through the readings.

As participants in this class, each of us commits to supporting an inclusive classroom environment where everyone feels welcome to participate and contribute to our learning community. We agree to listen and speak respectfully and to expect to be both challenged and valued.

Grading Policy

Participation in class discussions 40%
In-class midterm exam 30%
Final paper (including presenting concept and themes to the class) 30%

For detailed information on the activities above, see the Assignments section.

Required Books

The class will use three books and a variety of articles. You should obtain these three books:

Beckwith, Jon. Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science. Harvard University Press, 2002. ISBN: 9780674009288. [Preview with Google Books]

Jerome, Fred, and Rodger Taylor. Einstein on Race and Racism. Rutgers University Press, 2006. ISBN: 9780813539522. [Preview with Google Books]

Buy at MIT Press Barres, Ben. The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist. MIT Press, 2020. ISBN: 9780262539548. [Preview with Google Books]

One optional book has material that may be helpful for the final paper:

Schmalzer, Sigrid, Daniel S. Chard, and Alyssa Botelho, eds. Science for the People: Documents from America’s Movement of Radical Scientists. University of Massachusetts Press, 2018. ISBN: 9781625343185. 

Some other books are mentioned in the Readings and Videos section.




Science, power, and social responsibility


Nuclear weapons and gender


The Nuclear Freeze campaign and the role of organizers


The birth of environmentalism


Climate change

Guest speaker during first class: Josué Lopez, Fossil Free MIT


The Civil Rights movement


Vietnam War protests by scientists

Student summaries of final paper concepts


The March 4 movement, the founding of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the fate of MIT’s Special Laboratories

Student summaries of final paper concepts

Guest speakers: Dr. Aron M. Bernstein, MIT Department of Physics, and Heather Nan Lechtman, MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering


Concerns about genetic engineering

Student summaries of final paper concepts

Guest speaker: Dr. Jon Beckwith, Harvard Medical School, Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology

Midterm exam


The status of women in science

Guest speaker: Dr. Nancy Hopkins, MIT Department of Biology


Intersectional feminism

Final paper due


Student activism at MIT, 1980s to present

Guest speaker: Dr. Steven Penn, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Department of Physics

Course Info

Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments