Social justice relating to equity may not be the first topic that comes to mind when thinking about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. But, in many ways, making STEM education more equitable and inclusive will largely determine its future relevance and success.
Reflecting this, coursework in the online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) – Science Education program at The University of Texas at Arlington's (UTA) focuses on the study of teaching models for diverse learners. These studies can prepare future STEM C&I leaders and science educators to spearhead the crucial drive for equity in STEM education.
Why Is Equity Lacking in STEM Education?
Unfortunately, STEM education has traditionally failed to equitably serve and educate women, members of minority groups, economically disadvantaged people and other populations. 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.
These educational inequities take many forms. Women and members of marginalized groups have long been underrepresented as important figures and thinkers in STEM subject curriculum content. Students who do not relate to the content they are studying may logically feel disconnected from content and disengaged with their learning.
STEM education has generally utilized traditional instruction and assessment methods that largely reflect the non-marginalized culture's norms and experiences. Such rigid methods of teaching and evaluation methods are often incompatible with the American population's diversity of learning needs, cultural norms and life experiences.
Moreover, the National Association for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) outlines how "micromessaging" in classroom interactions can perpetuate stereotypes: "Micromessages include looks, gestures, tone of voice, or the framing of feedback that subtly yet powerfully shape our culture, institutions, classrooms, and the individuals within them."
When micromessaging conveys bias, it creates a negative feedback loop NAPE calls the "culture wheel." This pattern involves cultural stereotypes and biases communicated through teacher micromessages, causing accumulated disadvantages for the student. This leads to disengagement and negative behaviors, all of which cyclically reinforce stereotypes and biases.
Inequities in K-12 STEM education result in the vast underrepresentation of underserved populations in higher education STEM programs and professional STEM fields. This creates distinct opportunity gaps in education, career options and upwards mobility for non-dominant populations, further perpetuating numerous societal inequities.
How Will Equity in STEM Education Impact the Future of STEM Fields in the U.S.?
Equity in STEM education and, thus, diversity and inclusivity in STEM professions are vital to the growth and rebuilding the U.S.'s role as a global leader in STEM research, innovation and progress.
The marginalized communities underserved by STEM education represent a substantial percentage of the U.S. population. With equal educational and professional opportunities and support, these traditionally underserved populations could exponentially increase STEM expertise, innovation and output in the U.S.
Hence, in addition to being a moral imperative, increasing the diversity and size of the STEM workforce would be beneficial in many pragmatic ways. STEM equity could drive economic growth, help meet ever-increasing high-tech labor demands, spur innovation to address global environmental, economic and societal challenges and much more.
How Can Teachers and Educational Leaders Promote Equity in STEM Education?
Educators should take a dynamic approach to drive equity in STEM education. First, educators should examine their own implicit biases and how those biases affect their teaching practices and students' learning experiences.
Deconstructing such biases and their negative impacts means taking action to reframe the culture wheel constructively. Affirming inclusive and supportive micromessaging builds cumulative advantages for students. This fosters student self-efficacy, motivation and engagement, all of which reinforce favorable student potential.
STEM C&I leadership should also examine, modify and reform methods of delivering content, instruction and assessment to promote equity. Curriculum must authentically represent all student cultures, backgrounds and experiences in order to be culturally relevant and engaging. As reflected in The UTA's online M.Ed. in C&I – Science Education coursework, teachers can learn how to differentiate instruction methods to better serve diverse learners.
Professional development, training and supportive leadership can help advance these culturally responsive teaching practices in STEM education. Development opportunities can include anti-racism training, implicit and hidden bias training and education in teaching models for diverse learners.
Educational equity organizations like NAPE, advanced degrees in education and even STEM industry leaders drive discussion and initiatives for equity in STEM education. Current and future STEM educators and C&I leaders will be central to these equity initiatives, improving learning outcomes and lifelong engagement in STEM fields for today's diverse student body.
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