Fostering Greater Equity in STEM Education by Extending STEM Across Contexts and Cultures

STEM learning aims to “foster connections among people, settings, and practices” (Penuel, Lee, & Bevan, 2014, p. 2).  In fact, fostering diversity in STEM education promotes equity by (a) expanding access to STEM learning opportunities; (b) brokering continuing opportunities for participation in STEM learning opportunities; and (c) helping young people appropriate STEM practices to address issues they feel matter to their personal lives or communities (Penuel, Lee, & Bevan, 2014, p. 1).  This includes leveraging marginalized students’ background knowledge or schema from a classroom setting to outside the classroom, or from one context outside of a classroom to another, different context.  Therefore, promoting equity in STEM, requires attention to providing young people access to powerful settings for learning; supporting them to make connections and take up opportunities across settings: and attending to how access to disciplinary practices is shaped by what goes on in particular learning environments” (Hand, Penuel, & Gutierrez, 2012, p. 255).


On a broad level, in order to foster greater equity in STEM, Penuel and colleagues (2014) synthesized current equitable STEM learning and identified three characteristics for effectively supporting access to STEM learning across educational settings (i.e., formal and informal learning environments).  Greater equity in K-12 STEM education requires: (a) expanding access for students of color to learning opportunities (e.g. Krishnamurthi et al., 2013; National Research Council, 2012), (b) brokering STEM learning across practices (i.e., disciplinary, cultural; see Bell et al., 2013) as well as across informal settings (e.g., school, home, community; see González, Moll, & Amanti, 2013), and (c) supporting students of color in connecting STEM education content to their own interests, communities, and cultures (e.g. Civil, 2014).


In order to support these characteristics with fidelity at a school level, Penuel et al. (2014) recommends five design principles to guide the development of equitable STEM education: (a) draw on values and practices from multiple settings to articulate learning goals and identify resources to meet those learning goals; (b) structure partnerships to encompass multiple stakeholder groups as a way of supporting co-design of initiatives focused on promoting learning across settings; (c) engage participants [students of color] in building stories, imaginative worlds, and artifacts that span contexts and that facilitate meaning making across contexts; (d) help youth [students of color] identify with learning enterprise by supporting and naming them as contributors to authentic endeavors; and (e) use intentional brokering to facilitate movement across settings, preparing both educators and parents to be brokers.


Draw on values and practices from multiple settings. Instead of focusing research on obtaining specific goals for a single learning environment, STEM-education research should “require a more diverse set of perspectives for articulating learning goals, identify potential challenges to meeting those goals, and identify and leveraging resources that can overcome those challenges” (Penuel & Fishman, 2012, p. 6).  It is not fruitful to assume that structures for STEM foundational thinking in one learning environment will easily transfer to another.  One must take into consideration the educational practices and values of the school (as an organization) before importing new practices to another setting.  For example, what works in one learning environment may not work in all schools.  Multiple perspectives are important.

Co-design in initiatives focused on promoting learning across settings. This requires the perspectives and voices of multiple stakeholders.  Any initiative, including STEM education, should be a collaborative effort that strives to create lasting partnerships for all members involved, across multiple K-12 learning environments.  In structuring these partnerships, “it is important not only to consider what stakeholder groups need to be involved, but also the history of communities and the relations among different stakeholder groups” (Penuel & Fishman, 2012, p. 8).  Without taking these into account, any change initiative will not be sustainable.

Engage participants in building artifacts that facilitate meaning across contexts. STEM foundational thinking and access to that learning require strategies that extend across educational settings, and into the real world.  For example, Penuel et al. (2014) discusses the use of “Transmedia storytelling” as a way to engage learners in building artifacts or learning portfolios by “creating a single story or story experience” (p. 8).  Students are active members of creating these stories that then translate to lessons in questioning, observations, and constructing claims, evidence, and reasoning for real-world scenarios.

Help youth identify with the learning enterprise. Penuel et al. (2014) discuss the importance of identifying and integrating students’ cultural practices into deep learning experiences.  This is how students co-create their STEM identities so that they do not conflict with their cultural identities.  A STEM identity “develops as people transform their participation in culturally valued activities and come to imagine new possible futures for themselves and others” (Penuel & Fishman, 2012, p. 9).  Students need multiple opportunities to develop their STEM identities, and how those match with their cultural identities, while solving authentic problems.  Students of color need to see themselves as STEM students as well as cultural beings.


Brokering to facilitate movement across settings. STEM foundational thinking does not solely live in the classroom.  Students take themes and content knowledge from STEM instructional activities and use them in other settings, mainly outside of the classroom.  This type of brokering “facilitates a form of learning that comes about form expanding personal networks” (Penuel & Fishman, 2012, p. 11).  Students can then become active members of their communities because they have developed social networks of others who have knowledge, skills, or resources needed to solve authentic problems.