Research Output
Using steam to power equality and democracy in vaccination decision making in the face of climate apartheid
  Technology and science are often promoted as the answer to the climate crisis, but changing human behavior from a user-centric position requires a humanistic and design thinking approach (Brown, 2009). If climate apartheid is to be challenged to decrease the divides between social, cultural and economic groups, then a participatory and democratic design approach needs to be found. One such challenge of inequality that will increasingly become more acute is the spread of viruses and disease, old and new, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown. Our study aims to demonstrate how science, technology, engineering, arts, math (STEAM) education can bring together diverse groups for a common understanding and empower them to have the confidence to advocate for change in human behavior from peer-to-peer rather than top down by government.

Our study focused on human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccines which are proven to save lives and eradicate associated cancers, but the uptake of the vaccine among first-year second level schoolgirls in Ireland, to whom it is offered for free, has dropped in recent years (ICS, 2020). Building on the experience of a previous pilot study with biological science and design students, this project aimed to validate the findings of the authors (2022) with these questions: In what ways can STEAM engage and motivate students to learn about immunology and vaccination? And in what ways can STEAM help them develop the competence and confidence to communicate their understandings about immunology and vaccination? It brought together a team of academics from education, design, biology, the Irish Cancer Society (ICS), and Irish post-primary students in an interdisciplinary, intersectoral, and international collaboration.

Twenty 16 to 17 year-old students, from three post-primary schools, participated in a weeklong series of on-campus STEAM workshops, facilitated by the team. These involved dialogical peer-to-peer teaching and learning (Topping, 2009) amongst the participants to co-create localized, culturally inclusive, and scientifically informed stories around HPV vaccination and immunization. Using the principles of active learning (Bransford et al., 1999) the students constructed their own knowledge and understanding through drama improvisation and storytelling through scripts and storyboards in an iterative process of presentations and idea selection in a visual thinking methodology (Averinou & Pettersson, 2020).

A qualitative arts-based research methodology was adopted. The impact of the workshop series was evaluated on three key criteria: students’ knowledge of immunology, their confidence in expressing their knowledge about immunology, and their confidence in advocating for vaccination and countering misinformation. Thematic analysis of the data was employed (Clarke et al., 2015).

The project highlights key insights that have wider application to combating climate apartheid: a STEAM approach is successful in engaging students in active learning and changing their attitudes towards the HPV vaccine from passive to positive; the use of a STEAM approach enabled and encouraged students to become more confident in their understanding of the HPV vaccine and immunization and more confident advocating for the HPV vaccine to peers; and combining creative learning and teaching approaches with scientific content can lead to meaningful changes in human behavior.

  • Date:

    23 April 2023

  • Publication Status:


  • Funders:

    Edinburgh Napier Funded


MacDonald, I., Firth, R., Healey, C., Malone, E., & McDermott, A. (2023). Using steam to power equality and democracy in vaccination decision making in the face of climate apartheid. In Design for Adaptation Cumulus Conference Proceedings Detroit 2022 (120-136)



STEAM; immunology; drama improvisation; storytelling; advocacy

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