4 Ways to Boost STEM Participation in Underrepresented Groups - ASCD
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November 8, 2018

4 Ways to Boost STEM Participation in Underrepresented Groups

According to a 2017 study by the National Science Foundation (NSF), although minorities made up 39 percent of the adult population in 2014, minorities were awarded only 20 percent of the undergraduate degrees in science and engineering that year. The NSF predicts that minorities will make up more than half of the adult population in the United States by the year 2060. Lowering barriers to STEM in underrepresented populations today may help ensure a STEM-ready workforce in the future.

One of the biggest barriers to STEM participation in underrepresented groups may be the relatively few minorities enrolled in advanced science and math courses. The NSF study showed that although girls and boys major in science at relatively equal rates, fewer girls select science majors that emphasize math, preferring biology instead. Minorities' and girls' exposure to math and sciences that rely heavily on math is often limited to required classes in middle and high school.

There are some steps teachers can take in their middle and high school classrooms to help build interest and persistence in STEM, starting with finding role models that students can relate to. All students, and especially girls, benefit from a growth mindset of learning. Improving attitudes about math helps students keep an open mind about advanced math classes and careers involving math. An open-ended, interdisciplinary approach to science inquiry can help students tap into issues that are important to them and their communities.

1. Identify Role Models That Students Can Relate To.

In the 1960s, students viewed astronauts as heroes and role models as they watched them rocketing to the moon on televised Apollo missions. Today's students need role models too. Teachers can highlight the lives and accomplishments of women, people of color, and multilingual STEM professionals in their classrooms through discussions and interactive projects. This can add richness and context to what is typically depicted in classroom textbooks.

Textbooks often portray STEM professionals as middle-aged white men. Teachers can look beyond this view to find role models that can help build students' aspirations in STEM. For example, in the recent hit movie Hidden Figures, women mathematicians at NASA broke down barriers of race and gender. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a well-known astrophysicist popularized on TV and social media, can serve as a role model to students of color and inner-city students. These role models help all students appreciate the diversity possible in STEM.

To help teachers find good role models for their students, the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity provides links to STEM professionals across all gender and demographic groups, along with essential resources for teachers. They also maintain a list of mentors and opportunities for STEM professionals to serve as mentors.

2. To Encourage Girls in STEM, Emphasize a Growth Mindset.

The NSF study revealed that, despite the relatively greater number of girls than boys majoring in biology, three times as many boys than girls majored in math and engineering. And there were nearly twice as many boys than girls majoring in chemistry and physics—subjects known to rely on math skills.

A growth mindset can make all the difference when it comes to girls and STEM. A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence is fluid and can be improved through learning, rather than being a fixed characteristic that predetermines student achievement. A 2017 study of boys and girls with similar beliefs regarding their efficacy in math found that these boys selected STEM majors three time as often as the girls did. Importantly, the girls in this study who did select STEM majors maintained a growth mindset towards learning—in contrast to the girls who veered away from STEM majors.

3. Emphasize Math in Nonmath Classes.

One way for teachers to help students build math skills and confidence in math is to look for opportunities to use math throughout the school day, not just in math class. When math appears to serve no purpose other than to get the "right" answer, engagement suffers. By incorporating math into other subjects, students may begin to see math as useful tool, rather than a chore. My own recent research ("Embedded mathematics in chemistry: A case study of students' attitudes and mastery," published in the Journal of Science Education and Technology) showed that students who completed a math-intensive science class had significantly better attitudes toward math and careers involving math after completion of the course.

This information flies in the face of STEM teaching strategies that minimize the math component in an effort to make STEM more attractive to a wider range of students. More practice doing math helps students build confidence, increasing the likelihood that they will succeed in—and persist in—STEM coursework.

4. Involve Students in Project-Based Learning.

Students may have little interest in following scripted lab procedures aimed at arriving at a predetermined result. By incorporating project-based learning, students can investigate open-ended topics of interest to them. Projects that use skills involving research, writing, math, engineering, science, and technology to solve problems of their choice can ramp up student engagement. That's just what happened in our district's Spring Hill High School, where students studying fracking used solid-phase extraction to remove metals that can foul groundwaters in fracked regions. Their work was recognized as the 2014 Samsung "Solve for Tomorrow" contest winners for the state of Tennessee.

To help students find issues that grab their interest, students can monitor news sources in their community and on the web. For example, the EPA had a meeting in 2018 regarding contaminants found in drinking water in many communities. Surprisingly, EPA meeting organizers banned reporters from the Associated Press and CNN from the meeting, although other members of the public were allowed to attend. A class discussion might stimulate student interest in the topic, especially if students live in areas where these contaminants are likely to be found.

Other ideas that may help stimulate student interest are discussions of who is credited for advances in science and engineering; who is left out; and who might benefit from narratives in textbooks, on the news, and in social media. These discussions can raise questions regarding equity and increase engagement that can help drive inquiry into issues relevant to students and their communities.

Students have a natural curiosity about the world around them, and teachers can capitalize on this curiosity to build strong and long-lasting interest in STEM, for students of all races, genders, and backgrounds.

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