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3 Keys To Growing STEM Opportunities For Underrepresented Students

Jul 9, 2024 | Leadership, Shift

3 Keys To Growing STEM Opportunities For Underrepresented Students

By Nichole Austion, Vice President of Public Affairs at the National Math and Science Initiative

I was one of a few students racialized as black at my high school. Although there were teachers who were racialized as black in my school, none of them taught my classes. I was fortunate that the teachers I did have recognized and encouraged my passion for math and science. I went on to pursue a STEM career, earning a computer system engineering degree at Howard University—where I had my first teacher who was racialized as black.

Fortunately, a STEM career always felt within my reach. However, I’ve heard far too often that there are school cultures that not only fail to support underrepresented students but actively discourage their curiosity. Recent statistics show that STEM inequities persist among underrepresented groups.

  • Women, especially women of color, hold only a minority of STEM jobs.
  • In an analysis of STEM attainment rates by race/ethnicity and gender, there are still persistent inequities in STEM degree attainment for people of color, women, and women of color, according to The Education Trust.
  • People racialized as black comprise 11% of all workers but only 9% of STEM workers, while Latinos comprise 17% of the total workforce but hold only 8% of STEM jobs, according to the Pew Research Center.

Despite these obstacles, several women of color have broken through the glass ceiling in STEM fields, propelling themselves into new dimensions of achievement. One of them is Joan Higginbotham, the third woman racialized as black to ever launch into space. She flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery as a mission specialist in 2006 and was one of a seven-member crew to work on the International Space Station (ISS).

Higginbotham didn’t orbit to success by accident. In a recent National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) webinar, she credited her supportive family, rigorous high school math and science classes, meaningful college internships, career mentors, and perseverance mindset for her success. From her story, we have learned some key lessons about how to make STEM more equitable for underrepresented students through:

  • mentoring and coaching,
  • providing hands-on experiences in real-world scenarios, and
  • helping students build self-efficacy.

Mentoring and Coaching

Years before Higginbotham was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996, she attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, where she participated in INROADS, a pre-engineering program for women and minorities. The program sparked her curiosity about the math and science disciplines and prepared her for engineering, and later, aerospace science.

Like Higginbotham, I knew I was interested in STEM, but I had mentors who could help me relate my interest to a future career. A supportive school culture plays a critical role in STEM learning; administrators, teachers, and staff need to uphold high expectations for all students.

  • Educators must be willing to learn multiple ways to teach math and science concepts so that children can see math and science in their everyday lives.
  • Teachers must also understand that it’s not only the “A” students who can succeed in STEM.
  • Like NMSI’s Laying the Foundation program, resources that help educators develop a culture that raises expectations for all students, including pedagogy and content skills, help them confidently lead diverse learners.

Providing Hands-on Experiences in Real-World Scenarios

Girls start losing interest in math and science in middle school due to peer pressure, lack of female role models, and lack of encouragement from teachers and parents.

Teachers and schools can reignite girls’ interest in STEM by making science applicable to everyday life. Higginbotham said she remembers a particular activity in her INROADS program, where students had to create a structure that could withstand an egg drop.

Today, we can model real-world engineering concepts through hands-on projects and project-based learning experiences that involve building circuits and robots, giving students more opportunities to experience science through hands-on projects. Engaging students in hands-on activities and inquiry-based lessons are ways to hook students on STEM in a non-threatening way.

To better prepare students for college and career, schools should actively demonstrate and emphasize diverse STEM pathways and guide them toward those courses.

  • Taking STEM Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school increases the likelihood of continued success in college STEM courses, especially for students of color. Further research indicates that an AP exam grade of 3 or higher significantly increases college success, especially for Hispanic students and students racialized as black, who have a 28% higher chance of success compared to non-AP takers.
  • Quality STEM education begins with effective teachers who are confident and prepared. Programs, such as NMSI’s Laying the Foundation Program, which bolsters teachers’ pedagogy and content skills so they can confidently lead diverse learners.
  • Educators must guide students of color in understanding STEM higher education options, including community and technical schools. Community colleges serve as a gateway to workforce-oriented STEM degrees or transferable credits to four-year
    colleges.

Building Self-Efficacy

Breaking into NASA required more than good grades—it required grit. Initially, Higginbotham was one of 6,000 applicants for a space program role, dwindling to 120 interviewees, but she didn’t make the final 15. Viewing it as a setback, not a failure, she pursued a master’s degree, re-applying two years later with success. Her advice to young women: “Don’t let what you think is a failure stop you—think of it as a setback and keep moving forward.”

The STEM discipline requires hard work and determination. Students must learn to adopt a mindset of tenacity and perseverance, which is what NMSI-trained teachers work to instill in their students. By praising students for their efforts, teachers demonstrate that they can improve their math skills with effort, making students more resilient to setbacks.

Launching into outer space wasn’t—and isn’t—insurmountable for a woman racialized as black. Higginbotham tells other women that if she can do it, they can do it, too. “I’m not any smarter or more special,” she said. “I studied hard, tried my best, and worked to achieve my goal.”

Nichole Austion, vice president of public affairs for the National Math and Science Initiative, partners with state and national associations and state-level government advocacy groups on behalf of the national nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming math and science education in today’s classrooms.

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