In the context of STEM education, it is not enough for schools to identify the content and skills needed for K-12 students to become STEM ready. School leaders, STEM educators and educational stakeholders must take things a step further and ensure all students – particularly underserved students – have access to experiences that will develop STEM literacy.
In order to do that, school must make equity a cornerstone of the educational system. Equity refers to the attribute of being fair and impartial. According to the Center for Public Education — educational equity is achieved only when all students receive the resources they need to graduate ready to succeed in college, work and life.
By now most educators are fully aware of the nationwide push for equity in educational reform and many educational standards – NGSS, CSTA standards, ISTE Standards – call out equity as a key component for success.
For this purpose, the Equity Literacy Institute created the Equity Literacy Framework, which are terrific guidelines for cultivating the knowledge and skills that enable educators to promote and advocate for equity in our spheres of influence.
The framework outlines four major abilities that educators must cultivate for combating biases and inequities — to recognize, respond to, and redress bias and inequity, and to create and sustain equity. Here are the steps STEM educators can take to ensure equity literacy in their schools and classrooms:
Mindful educators need to recognize future STEM talent in all of their students and encourage them to participate in STEM learning. It’s common for students who don’t consider themselves as STEM material — or are perceived by their teachers as not being STEM candidates — to fall by the wayside. The ability to recognize even the subtlest implicit biases is a critical skillset for every STEM educator.
Unfortunately, this lack of recognition by educators often happens to learners who are furthest from opportunity. Computer science (CS) is part of STEM education, and a Google report exploring diversity gaps in computer science (CS) indicates that many young women, African-Americans, and Hispanics/Latinx students are less likely to be encouraged toward CS. They, therefore, have limited access to CS pathways and, thus, lack interest in CS and other forms of STEM learning.
Even if a female student makes it into a computer science class, she may feel like she doesn’t belong, become isolated or suffer from imposter syndrome. We need to recognize this as a symptom of the conditions in our classroom. We cannot control everything, but we can control the environment we create within our walls. Mindful educators will recognize and reflect upon their own contributions to this.
As teachers we try to call on students equally. Some of us may use popsicle sticks or some other method to ensure we’re giving everyone an equal opportunity to participate. Recognize if there is a pattern to whom you call on, or if there are questions that a boy is more likely to get than a girl. Are boys being asked more technical questions while girls are asked to share those that require empathy?
Being able to recognize these inequities and marginalized groups allows the alert educator to work with colleagues to respond appropriately.
Reflection: Consider the students in STEM+CS classes within your school. Do they reflect the general population of the school? Is there a certain group that is over-represented or under-represented?
To respond effectively, educators need the right preparation for STEM in tandem with effective facilitation skills. Activities in STEM need to engage students in learning core concepts, best practices and collaboration with peers. When educators learn to engage and coach through their facilitation skills, students who are typically left out of CS and STEM get the opportunity to excel.
Some students need to develop their confidence, might feel like they don't belong, have knowledge gaps, are enduring misfortunes, have difficulty learning independently or just need unconditional regard along with encouragement.
Some of these types of students are easy to recognize in the classroom. For example, if a student is constantly putting themselves down or giving up. Others, however, might be a little more difficult to catch.
Consider a CS class where students are participating in a collaborative activity. While the teacher is circulating through groups, it may seem like everyone is on task and completing the activity. But one student, we’ll call him Billy, attended CS camps over the summer. He already knows how to get to the intended result. So he takes over and tells the others what to do. How does this take the learning away from others or cause some to feel as if they don’t belong?
The responsive educator must work to remove any isolation that deters our students socially and academically.
Reflection: When students are working in groups, it is crucial to assign roles and offer students exposure to a variety of roles throughout the course of the year. Who are the students in your class who might“take over” during a collaborative activity? Who may shut down because they feel they don’t know the activity? What parameters can we create to encourage learning for all?
Perhaps the greatest barrier to marginalized groups in STEM comes from the way the school schedules courses. Educators need to redress inequitable practices in scheduling students and ensure all have access to high-quality STEM learning experiences.
If our STEM+CS courses do not reflect the general population of the school, we must analyze possible reasons and remove barriers. This calls for collaboration with guidance counselors, advisers, administration and anyone else who will come to the table.
In one high school, a teacher noticed she had trouble recruiting students because her class was offered at the same time as intensive reading for sophomores. Both classes were only offered during the same period. Therefore, any sophomore who had to take intensive reading because of a state assessment score was not only losing an elective, but also missing out on the opportunity to take a computer science course. With some tweaks to the master schedule the following year, school officials made sure that classes offered only once a day were spread out so that overlapping would not cause a student to miss a learning opportunity.
Other barriers may be prerequisites, a student's GPA or the way a class is coded in the system. Also consider the person teaching the course and whether some groups are not signing up for the course because of the person leading it.
Reflect: Who within your community can “come to the table” and help address inequities? Who can help advocate so that you have a team of people helping to fight injustice?
Create and sustain
Only when educators and schools can recognize the real barriers to young people in CS and intentionally focus on equity in recruitment practices will student participation increase. Equitable recruitment practices can be created and sustained in the following three ways:
Mandating a CS course.
Creating a CS pathway with a sequence of courses.
Once students in STEM+CS classes reflect the general population of the school, consider what support is needed to keep them there and maintain a positive attitude about their place in STEM.
Courses may require homework where students need to access the internet or a computer. What supports can be created? Can the learning be achieved any other way?
Students may feel invisible because they don’t have role models or mentors in STEM fields and don’t see anyone who looks like them in those roles. Code.org has posters and videos that intentionally show a diversity of people in CS fields so students can feel connected to the work.
Reflect: Am I considering the needs, challenges, and barriers experienced by students who are most marginalized in each discussion and each decision about my classroom? Is my school? Is my district? What policies are in place that create barriers and who can I bring to the table to address them?
We are all at different points on the equity journey. But it doesn’t matter where we fall on the continuum as long as we keep moving forward.
Diverse STEM classes lead to diversity in STEM careers. We need diverse problem-solvers so that we have diverse solutions. In fact, diversity in STEM is also crucial for long-term economic growth.
The approaches listed above attempt to offer a framework to educators who want to move forward in their journey because they believe all students should have access to high-quality STEM learning. Anyone can be an advocate, not only STEM teachers.
Michelle Moore is a public education advocate. She specializes in STEM equity to ensure all students have access to high-quality STEM experiences in and outside of the classroom. Michelle is particularly interested in building diversity in STEM and Computer Science through the implementation of sustainable programs in schools. Connect with her on Twitter@Michelle4EDU.
Jorge Valenzuela is an award-winning education coach, author and advocate. He is the lead coach for Lifelong Learning Defined, a national faculty of PBLWorks and on the Teach Better Team Speakers Network. Jorge was appointed by Virginia’s governor to serve on the STEM Education Commission for the 2019-20 school year and is the author of Rev Up Robotics Real-World Computational Thinking in the K–8 Classroom. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @JorgeDoesPBL to continue the conversation.