Challenging Perceptions in the STEM Classroom

graphic saying Challenging PerceptionsAs a female STEM graduate myself (geology), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to encourage more women and minorities to get involved with STEM classes and potential careers. I was fortunate that my first job out of college was at the American Geosciences Institute, editing their database of journal articles from around the world. I have never had to deal with gender bias in my career, unlike many female scientists.

There are a number of factors in the under representation of women and minorities in STEM fields, and the reasons pile up long before people start STEM careers. In elementary schools, teachers may have unconscious biases that they transfer to their students. These biases can result in young girls’ feelings that science and math careers aren’t for them. These same kinds of unconscious biases can be stacked against people of color. Often, these unconscious biases are reinforced by teachers’ own feelings of anxiety with respect to science and math. One study found that undergraduate elementary education majors have high levels of math anxiety that they may transfer to students.

Dislodging Unproductive Beliefs

By the time students get to your middle and high school classrooms, you’re inheriting a number of unproductive beliefs that they may hold. Your female students have been exposed to the message that girls aren’t interested in STEM. Your minority students have heard similar messages. There is increasing evidence that these messages are just plain wrong. For example, a longitudinal study has found that globally, girls outperform boys in reading, math, and science. It’s important to try to change these beliefs, because the participation of all people is needed to come up with innovative solutions to pressing challenges.

Diversity in workplaces helps companies foster innovation and compete globally. Another important reason to increase diversity in STEM fields is to alleviate the problem of female minority scientists being mistaken for janitors in their own labs. The issue has broader economic and social implications too, because access to a STEM career in most cases brings a higher salary. If female and minority students don’t get the science and math background they need in school they will not be eligible for those higher salaries. Increasing diversity may be an effective way to alleviate social inequality. These issues are not just a concern in the United States, as similar debates are underway in England as well as in India.

Initiatives for Change

There are a number of initiatives in place to change perceptions about the role of women and minorities in STEM fields. The MIT Summer Research Program is open to undergraduate students, with the aim of encouraging them to pursue graduate degrees. And there are programs for younger students as well. Brookhaven National Lab offers a STEM Prep program for minority students in New York City. A number of programs, some specifically for women, are aggregated here. Coded by Kids offers weekly web development classes and summer camps to disadvantaged students in Philadelphia. An organization called Building Diversity in Science has created a curriculum called Optimizing STEM Students for high school juniors and seniors; it aims to equip students with skills to succeed in STEM fields.

In your own classrooms, consider highlighting the work of important female and minority STEM researchers. Your students need to see that the STEM fields are populated with researchers of all backgrounds. The Lady Paragons website produces a Women in STEM podcast that is worth telling your students about. A blog post by an astronomy postdoc describes her Rising Stargirls program for young middle school girls of color, and a YouTube video showcases five black chemists who changed the world. A history of African Americans in meteorology can be found here. Famed science evangelist Ainissa Ramirez has written a useful article on things you can do in your classroom to help change students’ perceptions of who scientists are and where to look for examples of female and minority scientists. She has also compiled a list of black scientists and inventors that you can share with your students.

Shape the Future

As teachers, you have a unique opportunity to shape your students’ futures. I hope you find these resources useful. All of your students should leave your classrooms knowing that even if a STEM career isn’t for them personally, there are others like them who are being successful at it.

Produced by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), The STEM Classroom is written by science writer Becky Stewart as a forum for ideas and resources that middle and high school teachers need to support science, technology, engineering, and math curricula. If you enjoy these blog posts, follow Becky Stewart on Twitter (@ramenbecky). Fans of the old version of The STEM Classroom e-newsletter can find the archives here.

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2 Responses to Challenging Perceptions in the STEM Classroom

  1. Becky Stewart says:

    Her’s some more reading on how math and mentoring can help young African American men.

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