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Students First STEM Content Second
Some perceive that the STEM education reform movement began a few years ago. It did not. STEM educators have been trying to improve the way STEM subjects are taught and to increase underrepresented students’ access to these disciplines for more than 40 years—to my knowledge, since Sputnik. The work is slow, considering how long it took to acknowledge nationally the contributions of hidden women: physicist, Katherine Johnson; computer scientist, Dorothy Vaughn; and engineer, Mary Jackson.
The efforts of other hidden figures not only drew me to chemistry, but also enabled me to survive two degrees in chemistry. I internalized what my elders said, albeit some of what they were attempting to communicate made absolutely no sense 25 years ago.
In the important and seemingly never-ending effort to improve STEM education, how often do we slow down and ask the question: Ultimately, what is the goal of our efforts to improve all aspects of STEM education? The answer, I think, must always be focused on improving the lives and academic prospects of all students—not a privilege few.
I am on a quest to answer the following questions:
- Is it possible that youths’ actions—speaking with their feet, for instance—are more a reflection of professional STEM educators’ deficiencies, revealing what we refuse to study and consciously decide not to do when it comes to educating other peoples’ children?
- How can STEM educators formulate policies and practices to improve youth STEM achievement without possessing an adequate knowledge of youth cultural assets and experiences?
- Why won’t more STEM content knowledge people entering education study adolescent and youth development? (These are academic disciplines, too.)
- What are the interaction patterns across students and adults in successful STEM programs that are not evident in unsuccessful programs?
- What are the deliberate and nuanced interactions patterns between teachers and students that promote students’ STEM efficacy?
Some students might not be content-knowledge savvy when they enter STEM education spaces, but they possess intellectual assets. Therefore, as diverse people with interdisciplinary content knowledge, backgrounds, and funds of social and emotional capital enter and mature in STEM education spaces, they will influence the goals, knowledge, and culture of STEM and STEM education as well as challenge narrow assumptions about who is capable of learning and doing STEM.
Academic or professional success in STEM disciplines—engineering, chemistry, biology, mathematics, neuroscience, robotics, information technology, and physics—is not reserved for a small, too often single-digit, percentage of the U.S. population.
For years, students’ access to high quality STEM education experiences was limited or restricted. Restricted access is historical and cultural. Historically, access to high quality STEM education experiences was not for all students. High quality cutting edge STEM experiences were reserved for students who already had access to high caliber teachers and cutting edge equipment and resources. High quality STEM education was targeted to those who exhibited some identified propensity to do well as scientists or engineers.
To reach students who were not deemed as science or engineering competent, educators—mostly from underrepresented populations, such as African American, Hispanics and women with backgrounds in biology, engineering, chemistry, and physics—began the arduous work of brokering access.
Brokering access is historical and cultural as well. Brokered access is often done by scholars who navigate diverse contexts. Hybrid brokers are experts at code switching; they can interact with youth and professional adults, educated and undereducated people, and university faculty and communities, including pastors and church congregations.
Hybrid brokers are engaged in the demanding and challenging work of helping our nation’s scientists and engineers understand the necessity for underrepresented youth to learn not only hard core science and engineering facts and ways of thinking, but also learn their historical legacy to science and engineering (e.g. Brown, 2004; Pearson, 2005). Hybrid brokers understand that underrepresented youth must develop identities as scientists or engineers (Williams & Blackmon, 2015; Gottfried & Williams, 2013; Carlone & Johnson 2007, Aschbacher, Li, & Roth, 2010) and that efforts should start early to increase students’ science and engineering efficacy to sustain the rigor and frustration they will encounter when navigating STEM college courses and the professional enterprise.
Hybrid brokers recognize that students need to know science and engineering facts and processes–not strictly for the sake of knowing and to regurgitate facts, but to expand the scientific knowledge base and ultimately alter their economic trajectories by serving as science or engineering innovation leaders. Their future scientific contributions ultimately benefit everyone.
I know thousands of ethnically diverse people, men and women, with advanced degrees in STEM disciplines. As such, I’ve not been able to understand how anyone can hear “STEM success” and simultaneously think that only a singular monolithic group of people are the only types of people succeeding in STEM careers.
Although there is some acknowledgement of social psychological interventions that work inside STEM education programming, not much is reported on specifically how and why, for instance, verbal persuasion (one of four factors associated with building efficacy) works. Increasingly, due to the unrelenting commitment of educators to STEM education equity, the artifacts of educational inequity are being dismantled. Unfortunately, such efforts are not happening brick by brick, but more like sand grain by sand grain.
These equitable systems for STEM success are being created inch by inch instead of mile by mile. I get it; these systems do not spring forward at the discharge of silver or magic bullets. I wish they did, though. We all should understand that equitable systems are the manifestation of numerous and sustained collaborative actions and efforts of highly efficacious and committed people who have decidedly placed students first, front and center.
Evidence shows that underrepresented students participating in STEM while in college or going through STEM-based afterschool programs have been successful. They have been successful in the face of all types of disruptive processes and have demonstrated a high capacity to perform exceptionally well when the necessary support structures and context are established.
Predictive factors like students’ sense of belonging, encouragement, positive verbal engagement, non-threatening interaction and safe psychological and emotional spaces, are now quantitatively measured through self- reports, observations and student response surveys. These predictive factors extend well beyond historical predictive factors such as students’ GPA, SAT scores, and parents’ socioeconomic status. These additional social and emotional predictive factors reveal what contributes to students’ engagement or lack thereof in STEM.
When we place students first and STEM content second, we address first the social and emotional well-being of students in our care then we get to business teaching science and engineering facts and processes. Attending to social and emotional predictive factors that originate from the literature on childhood and adolescent development extends the traditional cognitive predictive factors that we’ve used to characterize high quality STEM education. Zaff and Smerdon (2009), authors of “Putting Children Front and Center: Building Coordinated Social Policy for America’s Children” argue that child and youth development policies should address the needs of young people throughout the first two decades of life. In addition, these public policies should address the multiple contexts within which young people develop, and the multiple domains that represent positive development, such as cognitive, psychological, physical, social and emotional. The next wave of STEM education policy should be guided by the same.
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Innovative Learning Center partners with world-class institutions to change the common narrative of youth deficit to one of assets and abundance. We work to catalyze the next generation of STEM innovators and entrepreneurs. We provide research and evaluation consulting, data storytelling technology, logic model development, and educational products and programs to evolve academic and life success. Our consultants facilitate professional development for culturally responsive teaching and learning for students and adults. Together, we socially innovate the realm of STEM education, creating inclusive STEM cultures, where people feel like they belong and that foster diverse 21st century achievement.
APA Citation for this Blog Post
Blackmon, A.T., Students First STEM Content Second https://ilearningcenter.education/2017/05/students-first-stem-content-second/
Additional Relevant Citations
Aschbacher, P.R., Li, E., & Roth, E.J. (2010). Is science me? High school students’ identities, participation, and aspirations in science, engineering, and medicine. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47,5, pg. 564-582.
Brown, B. (2004) Discursive Identity: Assimilation into the culture of science and its implications for minority students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41, 8, pp.810-834.
Carlone, A.G., & Johnson, A. (2007). Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Science identity as an analytic lens. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44,8, pg. 1187-1218.
Gottfried, M. A. & Williams, D. (2013). STEM Club Participation and STEM Schooling Outcomes. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 21 (79) Retrieved May 9, 2017 from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/1361
Pearson, W. (2005). Beyond Small Numbers: Voices of African American PhD Chemists. New York, NY: Elsevier.
Williams, D.A., & Blackmon, A.T. (2015). College Me, Career Me: Building K-12 Student Identities for Success in Engineering. Eds. Slaughter, Tao, Pearson, 2015. Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
Zaff, J.F., & Smerdon, B. (2009). Putting Children Front and Center: Building Coordinated Social Policy for America’s Children Applied Developmental Science, 13, 3, pages 105-118.