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Leadership Insights

Expanding STEM To Underrepresented Communities

By Jennifer Gunn October 24, 2018

STEM occupations continue to seriously lack minority representation, and therefore STEM programs are needed more than ever in schools that serve minority and low-income populations. As the nation moves toward a greater emphasis on STEM learning and prepares students for a more technological future, it’s time for a tectonic shift, expanding STEM learning opportunities to all students.

The demographics of STEM

According to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, “Underrepresented minorities are particularity underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Contrast these metrics with the number of underrepresented minorities earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering; they earned only 12.5% of all such degrees in 2011. Higher education experts say this gap poses an alarming problem not only to universities but also to the nation as a whole.”

According to one study, “In all STEM fields, only 48% of Hispanic/Latino and 38% of Black/African-American doctoral students had earned doctorates within 7 years, with 36% of members of these groups leaving the program entirely.” The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) released a federal report in 2017, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, that explored the participation of these groups in science and engineering fields.

The study reported a clear breakdown of who was working in science and engineering occupations in 2015:

  • White men 49%
  • White women 18%
  • Asian men 4%
  • Asian women 7%
  • Black men 3%
  • Black women 2%
  • Hispanic men 4%
  • Hispanic women 2%

The disparity of STEM and its early beginnings

STEM fields are substantially under-recruiting minority groups, and that trend begins long before college and career — it starts at home and in schools. Low-income students who may not be able to afford a home computer or home WiFi are less likely to develop skills like coding. Underfunded schools in low-income areas tend not to have the high-priced equipment for STEM learning programs or makerspaces. Change the Equation found that students in low-income schools are “much less likely than their peers in wealthier schools to experience hands-on activities in science. More than half miss out on these critical opportunities.” They also report that students in the poorest high schools have the least access to computer science classes and lack science labs and materials for science and math.

This K-12 reality translates to a massive divide between who is seeking higher education and who is not. “If you look at where we admit students who are going to have the most amazing careers you can imagine, you can pretty much map that against a map of the suburbs of regions of the United States which are rich enough to have strong math and computer science programs,” says Andrew Moore, dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. “This is very, very serious. We are genuinely worried that we are responsible for being part of an ongoing hegemony of the rich, wealthy – those being able to afford to live in the places where they can teach their kids to do that.”

Bringing STEM to underrepresented communities

Former U.S. Secretary of Education and author of How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, Arne Duncan says that minority students must be exposed to STEM. “We have to give kids exposure. We have to give them a glimpse into what exists outside of their block or their neighborhood,” Duncan says. “Whether it’s learning to code, or whether it’s having an opportunity to do research, or whether it’s having an opportunity to design apps…that has to start to become the norm.”

After-school STEM programs

After-school STEM programs are one way to support the advancement of student interest in STEM fields. A research study showed that over 70% of students in STEM after-school programs had increased interest in STEM careers and improvement in 21st-century skills. Local organizations are providing STEM-focused after-school programming in most cities, and these programs are often free in low-income areas. The Afterschool Alliance offers tips on creating and funding your own after-school STEM program.

Start small with STEM

STEM learning doesn’t haven’t to be pricey. Sure, a school could make a splash with 3D printers and robotic supplies, but STEM is really about skills and ideas — not just fancy labs and tech. Makerspaces can get going with things like LEGOs, cardboard boxes, and string. Hit up local businesses for donations or check your own recycling bin. There are tons of great books that help teachers start STEM projects and that provide interdisciplinary reading opportunities for learners.

Everyday project-based learning is a simple way to start building a STEM-based curriculum that works in any school. And, why not infuse STEM lessons and projects with art, thereby joining the STEAM movement?

Another way to start small is through Place-Based Education, which Getting Smart defines as “anytime, anywhere learning that leverages the power of place and not just the power of technology to personalize learning.” Students can use their own school building, neighborhood, culture, and surroundings as a lab. Getting Smart offers ways to get started here.

Get funding for STEM

There are tons of STEM grants available for schools, teachers, and classrooms. STEMFinity has collected over 1,000 STEM grant opportunities for teachers, including federal and local opportunities to fund STEM learning in your classroom and community.

It’s also pretty easy to ask local businesses and organizations for donations. You never know unless you ask, and once they hear about the innovative projects you’re planning, they’re bound to be intrigued. Find out if there’s a school tax ID number you can use so that donations are tax deductible and then include it in a brief donation request letter. Other important details to include:

  • A brief project summary
  • A list of materials needed with estimated prices
  • Number of students involved
  • Your learning objectives
  • Your contact information

When you visit local businesses to drop off the letter, speak to the manager, if possible, and then check back in three to five days. Requesting donations does take extra time but it can really pay off! Not only is there the potential to get one of your projects funded, but there’s also a chance that you’ll develop meaningful relationships in your community. This can open doors to long-term solutions when it comes to funding issues and a possible lack of community support/engagement. A similar idea is to sign up on DonorsChoose in the hopes of getting the funding you need online.

Social justice connections

Getting STEM into low-income and underrepresented communities is a social justice issue. A study from Vanderbilt University found that minority students were most likely to go into STEM fields because of social justice issues. “They are very passionate about STEM itself,” said Dr. Ebony McGee, author of the study. “But they see being intersectional with being able to do good in the world, either in their communities or in the larger global community.”

All students, regardless of income, ethnicity, or sex, deserve the opportunity to be prepared with 21st-century skills for future occupations. Knowing this disparity, we are compelled to take action and provide STEM learning opportunities in all K-12 classrooms and communities. Get students fired up by being transparent about the need for minority representation in STEM and the historical realities that have created this gap. Make it a school or classroom mission to fight back against this injustice and to pursue, with vigor, the skills and career fields of the future.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation, and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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