Students of all backgrounds deserve a quality STEM education, yet that still remains out of reach at many schools.
It’s no surprise that issues like equity, accessibility, and inclusivity are top of mind for educators in STEM fields, which cover science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A thorough STEM education can make a world of difference for students, and in order to deliver that, equity in the education system must be established.
The inequities that exist in STEM education have an impact on diversity in STEM careers, suggesting that a lack of a comprehensive STEM curriculum can limit future career options for students. The demand for STEM professionals continues to grow, so this lack of equity can negatively impact the workforce and economy as a whole, not just the students involved. At Kid Spark Education, we believe that the only way to close the STEM opportunity gap is to introduce children to STEM as early as possible and provide sustained STEM learning opportunities year after year.
Let’s dig into the current state of equity in STEM and potential remedies for key issues.
Why Equity Matters in STEM Education
In a December 2022 statement, the White House and Biden administration noted the issues in STEM education and beyond, saying, “Many students, families, and educators do not receive the holistic support they need to sustain lives of discovery, especially at the K-12 level.”
This statement accurately summarizes how the absence of a STEM education can affect more than just a batch of standardized testing scores, although those are certainly being impacted. If students do not have the foundational comprehension in STEM, they could fall behind in a way that permanently excludes them from STEM-related fields.
Many students have minimal or no exposure to STEM education, particularly in their early education and among locations with a high proportion of students of color, students from low-income families, and students from rural communities.
STEM has become an integral part of day-to-day life, from the technology we interact with to the jobs we apply to. Inequity in STEM typically affects the most at-risk students and can set them behind for the rest of their lives.
History of STEM Education Equity
Education has been historically inequitable. On top of that, STEM is a relatively new approach to education, allowing for further tension and wider gaps in inequalities.
The term “STEM” was coined in 2001 by the National Science Foundation (NSF), rearranging the previous term “SMET” and essentially launching the development of STEM education in the United States. This reinvigorated approach addressed the ongoing Digital Revolution (sometimes called the Third Industrial Revolution), which had started in the 1980s and showed no signs of slowing down.
In that time, STEM has failed to reach students of all backgrounds, with inequity a serious problem for STEM education across the country.
Diversity in the STEM Workforce
STEM careers and industries flourished in the following decades, but those jobs were not filled by a diverse workforce, suggesting significant barriers of entry for minorities and women. According to the Pew Research Center, “The long-term outlook for diversity in the STEM workforce is closely tied to representation in the STEM educational system, particularly across the nation’s colleges and universities.”
If students see themselves as excluded from or bad at STEM subjects at an early age, they may cement that belief in their plans for the future, avoiding potential careers that involve studying or engaging with STEM.
The University of Texas at Arlington expands on this historical context, stating, “This failure is rooted in systemic racism, gender discrimination, classism and other conscious and unconscious biases and stereotypes woven into U.S. educational systems and pedagogy.” Many of the barriers in STEM education are invisible, like so many other sources of inequality.
Lack of Diverse STEM Educators
Recently the Smithsonian Magazine reported that 79.3% of public school teachers identify as white, yet nearly 50% of public school students are Black. When students do not have educators that look like them and share their backgrounds, they may be less likely to envision themselves as potentially successful in those fields.
Additionally there is a nationwide teacher shortage, made worse by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. NPR reported that, according to the limited data available, 45% of public schools have at least one teacher vacancy. Schools that have high numbers of students affected by poverty and minority students are more likely to be affected by these shortages.
Benefits of Equitable STEM Education
Why does equity in STEM education even matter? The STEM opportunity gap makes it hard for students to catch up, and, once students are behind, they’re less likely to embrace STEM and pursue careers in related industries.
At Kid Spark Education, we believe that “[b]y giving students of all backgrounds and abilities an equal chance to learn and love STEM, we are nurturing a next generation of successful professionals, bold thinkers, and passionate leaders.” STEM isn’t going anywhere, so we think a proactive approach to addressing these inequities is needed.
Benefits of equity in STEM education include:
- Addressing Cultural Issues: In STEM fields like healthcare, racial discrimination and inequitable care are difficult problems. By establishing STEM literacy and identity at a young age, students will be more empowered as they grow up.
- Increased Diversity in STEM: When students from diverse backgrounds establish a love of STEM, they may eventually pursue a career in STEM, which can close the critical gaps in representation in those fields.
- Attracting Top Talent: If groups of students are left behind due to their race, gender, or other identity, they will be unlikely to succeed in STEM careers, and those fields will miss out on potential talent.
By providing high-quality STEM education early and consistently, educators can disrupt the pattern of educational inequity. This equitable education increases STEM literacy and builds STEM identity to underserved students.
What is STEM Literacy?
STEM literacy is the ability for individuals to understand and communicate about topics related to the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in a meaningful way. STEM literate individuals can identify and solve problems in STEM and with STEM methodologies.
What is STEM Identity?
STEM identity is how a person thinks of themselves as a scientist, mathematician, or other STEM thinker and how a person feels empowered in STEM. Students with a strong STEM identity are more likely to feel confident in their studies.
Accessibility and STEM
While many diversity initiatives have supported equity based on race or gender, fewer strategies have addressed inequality and accessibility issues for people with disabilities.
According to Life Sciences Education,
“Research laboratories—an icon of the sciences—are often inaccessible, featuring specialized equipment, requiring long work hours, and having nonergonomic workstation designs… Similarly, an overemphasis on the visual, analytic, and abstract in STEM can marginalize disabled people who would be better able to use visual or audio representations.”
While that article focused on higher education, all of the issues mentioned for universities can also affect students in elementary school, middle school, and high school, often exacerbated by the fact that adolescents and children may not be as practiced in advocating for their accessibility needs.
Examples of accessibility include the most commonly seen solutions like ASL interpretation and wheelchair access, but also includes accessible language, regular breaks, gender-neutral restrooms, and other accommodations.
When a student is faced with an inaccessible learning environment, they may feel less motivated to engage with the subject matter. For a student with disabilities, it can be hard to see a future in a field that does not provide equitable access. Inaccessibility must be addressed from top to bottom in the field of STEM.
How to Achieve Equity in STEM Education
In addition to the work of organizations like Kid Spark Education, government leaders and institutions have continued to tout the importance of addressing the inequity in STEM education.
In December 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy outlined five action areas for STEM equity and excellence. Those areas are:
- Ensure adequate support for students, teachers, workers, and communities to participate in and contribute to STEM in their lifetimes
- Address STEM teacher storage with diverse teacher pipeline
- Close the funding gap and develop long-term investment plans for historically underfunded communities
- Create solutions to address bias, discrimination, and harassment in classrooms, labs, and workplaces
- Promote accountability in STEM
Together, these action areas address systemic problems in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. By addressing the STEM equity issue on a federal level, the White House has made STEM a key political point worthy of mainstream discussion.
Similarly, the STEM Equity Initiative outlines the four following indicators that create an equitable learning environment:
- Inclusive: Implicit bias is studied and countered, and educators are aware of how students may be marginalized.
- Normalize: Diverse contributions are encouraged, and different perspectives are accepted.
- Relevant: Topics are meaningful to the lives of the students and their communities.
- Empower: Students have the tools and opportunities to embrace learning and are encouraged to pursue free thinking.
The indicators from the STEM Equity Initiative can be useful when educators and administrators are gauging their own classrooms’ equitability. Educators can ask themselves: Is this inclusive, normalized, relevant, and empowering?
Utilize Smart Instructional Approaches
Educators can address the issue of equity in their classrooms by being mindful of how they are teaching. While they may not be able to fix societal issues, they can take a few steps to create a safe and welcoming space for students of all backgrounds to succeed.
At the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, researchers outlined the principles of equity-focused teaching. Those principles are:
- Critical engagement of difference
- Structured interactions
- Academic belonging
These principles are meant to disrupt the historical disenfranchisement of students from specific backgrounds, like those who are minorities, have disabilities, or come from lower socioeconomic means.
Implement Successful STEM Programs with Kid Spark Education
A comprehensive STEM education should never be kept out of reach of students, no matter their background. Kid Spark Education exists to help address that gap, creating a foundational understanding of STEM and creating a lifelong love of the subjects.