In honor of #ShutDownSTEM which “aims to transition to a lifetime commitment of actions to eradicate anti-Black racism in academia and STEM,” I would like to share what I have learned about engaging underrepresented groups in STEM.
I work hard to democratize STEM learning spaces so that all children regardless of gender, class, or race, can participate in meaningful STEM activities and identify as STEM people.
Salary projections for the class of 2019 indicates that STEM majors were the highest paid compared to other majors. So, teaching materials and techniques that favor one racial group over others definitely is undemocratic on this concrete measure of future prospects.
Today, even non-STEM occupations require STEM skills. Students who are adept at teamwork, problem-solving, and analyzing quantitative data are at a distinct advantage regardless of whether they work as engineers or in other fields.
What does democratizing STEM even mean? Currently, textbooks and their publishers, standardized testing agencies, and other forces control learning in STEM classrooms, meaning that Black, female, Latinx, Native American, and other students find it hard to identify with STEM. There are limited role models that look like them and limited learning spaces that they can relate to. The best STEM classrooms are known to exist in specific zip codes in this country. Democratizing STEM simply means we are making STEM accessible to all instead of a select few. We need to take a hard look at the culture of STEM learning spaces – communication styles used by teachers and books, people, media, problems posed, and so on. How diverse are these? Where are the perceived STEM-rich spaces? the STEM-deficient ones? Why? How thoughtfully have all the factors shaping student and faculty experiences in the learning community been put together? A huge challenge when it comes to building equitable learning spaces and communities is the fact that the history of science has been unkind and has marginalized Blacks, women, and others.
Why do I not just train students to be excel in traditional STEM education? After all, we need people to solve problems and not just to feel good about themselves. Traditional STEM classrooms today often act as “leaky pipelines,” in which more and more underrepresented groups lose interest. I cannot blame them, considering that many classrooms require them to regurgitate facts and solve problems, mostly irrelevant to their lived experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think knowing facts and solving distant problems is all bad, but they cannot be the only activities done in STEM classrooms. Blacks and Latinx students leave their STEM majors at high rates, as described in this study. A biology professor at UNC got involved in analyzing the STEM achievement gap after data from her own class showed that one in three African-American students earned Ds and Fs while the white and Asian children flourished. You can read more about this here. How we teach affects who we reach, it affects students’ relationships with the discipline, it affects their identity as a member of the STEM culture.
Why STEM education? First of all, a positive STEM education will help all students, no matter what they decide to do. A good STEM education is supposed to have students develop skills, such as problem-solving, that will help them in all walks of life. I think that our country’s societal understanding of STEM is very narrow. There are so many fields that involve STEM, ranging from architects to economists to video game designers. Today, even non-STEM occupations require STEM skills. Students who are adept at teamwork, problem-solving, and analyzing quantitative data are at a distinct advantage regardless of whether they work as engineers or in other fields. Secondly, STEM professions are some of the most highly paid in the country. If we want to start closing the wealth gap that exists in our country, we must get underrepresented groups to want to pursue STEM careers. In fact, Salary projections for the class of 2019 indicates that STEM majors were the highest paid compared to other majors. So, teaching materials and techniques that favor one racial group over others definitely is undemocratic on this concrete measure of future prospects. Finally, I want to see real change because it matters to all of us as we face complex problems that affect varied populations differently. For example, the people in the science and engineering workforce are the people who are designing our products, building machines and tools that are used in healthcare, coming up with algorithms that determine what happens on social media and more. If this group is made up of the same type of people, then only one perspective will be used. Only people with different perspectives and ideas can lead to true innovation that works for all.
Getting students to identify with STEM is not always easy. I founded my nonprofit, talkSTEM, in 2015, with the goal of sharing, engaging and inspiring community members near and far. I aimed to provide a platform that connects all the voices that shape STEM learning, including parents, teacher, administrations, artists, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and more. My hope was that these voices would share their stories, and in this way inspire each other to engage all of our youth in STEM. In 2017, I started our walkSTEM initiative, which is a collection of place-based and theme-based STEM walks that can be experienced virtually. When I first started the walkSTEM initiative, I created free walking tours in the Dallas Arts District. Even though, I made sure the stops were near the Dart train stop, few black students and families joined at first. Looking back, I know the reason they did not join was because the Dallas Arts District is considered a predominantly white area. I started reaching out to various community groups from across the city and was able to organize some group tours in this way. I also focused on creating walkSTEM stops at varied locations, such as Red Bird Mall and Starbucks Community Café in Southern Dallas, which is a historically black part of the city. Building partnerships with large and small organizations that serve Black and the underrepresented groups in STEM was critical in providing access to our online content and programs. Dallas ISD remains a strong partner, with 95% of its 157,000 students being black, Latino, or other. Thanks to strong STEM leadership at this school district, all video content on our nonprofit and commercial-free channel is unblocked and accessible to teachers and after school programs to use in the schools. Finally, talkSTEM pioneered the Create Your Own walkSTEM initiative, which provides guidance and frameworks for all interested students, teachers, scientists and STEM professionals to share their STEM mindsets on our platform. In this way students, teachers and other members of the STEM community can co-author what STEM is and can share their mindsets on a freely accessible platform.
What have I learned? As I have spent the last five years living out my mission of equity in STEM education, I have learned that to get students engaged, we need to reach out and form alliances, to think flexibly about what STEM is and where it exists, and to provide opportunities for all voices to be heard. If we want to foster a STEM mindset, a STEM identity, a sense of belonging in STEM cultures, we need to validate lived experiences, we need to honestly critique the relics of an unjustly written history of science, and we need to invite all students to share their STEM stories. This way, every student would be able to share their own unique voice as opposed to the current educational system that is set up to guarantee that our STEM professionals are predominantly white and male.
Democratizing STEM means that we do not lose our most innovative voices by making sure every student can identify with STEM.