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Breaking Equity Barriers in STEM

Two GirlsEarlier this year, I went into a Techbridge after-school STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program for 5th grade girls in Oakland, CA in a predominantly Latino community. While the majority of the classroom reflected the demographics of the community, three young African American girls were part of the group. I observed the girls engaged in a toy design activity that involved integrating electrical circuits.

I loved that girls were actively engaged in STEM. In particular, I loved that girls of color were diving into STEM. But I noticed that the three African American girls were in one group and rarely interacted with the others. The African American girls may have been gaining strength from one another by bonding together, which is valuable. But I questioned whether they were getting maximum benefit from the program without having access to the perspective and knowledge of the other girls. I also wondered if the Latina girls were missing out by not breaking through racial and ethnic barriers to get new perspectives on their STEM projects.

And then I stepped back and thought - how can girls benefit from the greater STEM community outside Techbridge when we are encouraging them to enter an academic and career field that presents numerous barriers to all girls and especially to girls of color? This experience shifted my perspective on how different contexts can have a dramatic impact on who is facing barriers in STEM and how it’s important to understand who is the “minority” within each context.

During my past three plus years at Techbridge, the thing that I’m most passionate about is learning about inequities in STEM…and consequently, how to combat them.

I’ve been fascinated by Claude Steele and his team’s studies of stereotype threat where individuals are subconsciously swayed into fulfilling negative stereotypes about their own subgroups (e.g., African American students underperforming on a verbal test only after being reminded about their inferiority in academics).

I’ve been shocked at how common place and strong implicit biases are based on race and gender and how even professors at our most prestigious universities have strong unconscious biases that are detrimental to the progress of female scientists. I now know we are all susceptible to having these biases.

Techbridge delivers STEM programs for girls of color. Techbridge also provides training to our great many partners, including Oakland Unified School District, the California After School Network, and YMCA of the USA. These partners serve girls and boys of color, youth for whom English is a second language, and youth who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. These youth do not see themselves represented in STEM. How do we as parents, educators, and mentors prepare them to break through the equity barriers they face in STEM and academics?

Here are some research-based strategies that have been shown to combat stereotype threat and promote academic achievement:

• Give youth growth mindset feedback so that they understand that their intellectual abilities can be developed through effort and persistence.
• Help youth reflect on other values in their lives beyond school and STEM that are sources of self-worth for them.
• Teach youth about how intelligence is malleable and that difficulties in academics – including STEM – are just part of the normal learning curve and are not unique to them or their gender, race, or class.
• Help youth create a positive group identity that promotes their abilities and encourages them to persevere in intellectual pursuits.

These strategies really do work. At a large scale, promoting a growth mindset can positively shift the academic performance of minority students. Engaging students in simple exercises that encourage self-affirmation result in significant improvement of academic achievement for African American students.

When we encounter situations like that of our 5th graders in Oakland, we intentionally employ social engineering and community building activities like icebreakers to encourage girls to mix with those different from themselves and to break down barriers. We encourage a positive group identity through repeating statements like “Techbridge girls can collaborate to work through a problem” and “Techbridge girls work hard and persist through tough STEM projects.” When a girl faces a barrier to STEM based on her race, gender, language ability, socioeconomic level, or any number of other factors, we work with her to develop a growth mindset so that she feels ready and prepared to engage with the world of science and engineering beyond Techbridge. What do you do to create an equitable learning environment for all of your youth?

Comments (1)

  1. LIYSF:
    Jul 22, 2020 at 01:51 PM

    Today's students are tomorrow's pioneers. Occupations in STEM-related professions are probably the quickest developing and best paid of the 21st century, and they frequently have the best potential for work development. The most ideal approach to guarantee future achievement and life span is to ensure that the students are well versed in these subjects. Building a strong STEM Foundation through a balanced educational plan is the most ideal approach to guarantee that Students are presented to math, science, and innovation all through their instructive profession. The craze for STEM Learning has now significantly increased in young students. The universities are coming up with various STEM Learning Programs in collaboration with other institutions & researchers. The STEM Learning Ecosystems have a vast potential to teach the young students in masses. Every year students are applying for these programs in a big number because of the real-time practice and to represent their talents.

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