Improving STEM Equity by Extending Knowledge Application Beyond the Classroom

Research indicates that very few students of color view themselves as STEM learners when investigating a question or problem in their community (Darling-Hammond, 2010).  Because previous research indicates a lack of diversity in STEM education and careers and specific schools structures that support successful STEM integration, there is a greater need to research what elementary school structures support students of color in STEM curricular areas (Martin, 2008; McGee & Martin, 2011; Moore, 2008; Tate, 1994; Terry, 2010).  When researching mathematics education in working class Latina/o communities, Marta Civil (2014) felt that her interests in learning as a cultural process, and in particular the concept of funds of knowledge, could be extended to STEM learning.  For example, Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez (2005, p. 72) explained “we use the term funds of knowledge to refer to these historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being.”   By placing STEM education under a sociocultural lens, Civil (2014) sees similarities between making connections to mathematics in the real world and STEM.  STEM learning must be connected to the real world.  At its heart, the engineering-design process lays a lifelong framework of the continual process of improvement by connecting the principles of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Civil goes on to say that “we need to understand better the role of valorization of knowledge particularly as it applies to everyday practices versus practices in STEM disciplines” (2014, p. 15).


All students, especially marginalized students, need to see themselves as learners.  Research supports that when students bridge out-of-school concepts with in-school content, they make “robust, authentic connections” in this third space (Gutierrez, et al. 1999).  Researchers agree on the need to reform traditional ideologies of a rigorous education to one of STEM foundational thinking.  However, STEM education reform at the elementary school level, is missing from current educational research, leaving a gap in research regarding elementary school STEM education


Characteristics of Equitable STEM Education Improvement

Existing research on organizational performance and equitable school improvement discuss the need for values, collaboration and planning, curriculum and instruction, professional learning, and communication (Chiu, Price, & Ovrahim, 2015; Bryk, 2010; Seabring et al., 2006; Rogers, 1995; Basham, Israel, & Maynard, 2010; Wang et al., 2011; Wiebe et al., 2013; Mahoney, 2010).

            Values.  In looking at comparative case studies of 10 STEM-focused high schools, Scott (2012) found that a school’s mission statement has an overall impact on school culture.   There is an obvious connection between a school’s mission statement and “the characteristics of the programs that each school provide[s]” (Chiu, Price, & Ovrahim, 2015, p. 6).  Schools that have a strong STEM focus embedded in their mission statement, culture, and leadership will have more successful STEM students, “whereas a principal who does not support science or science learning could do just the opposite” (Chiu, Price, & Ovrahim, 2015, p. 7).


Both Bryk (2010) and Seabring, Allensworth, Easton and Luppescu (2006) offer five suggestions for school improvement that can also be tied to a strong STEM program: (a) leadership, (b) professional capacity, (c) parent-community ties, (d) student-centered learning, and (e) instructional guidance.  According to Bryk (2010), “leadership drives change” (p. 25).  Therefore, it only makes sense that one would question the form of leadership necessary to drive sustainable change.  The leadership factors for successful school improvement are a combination of inclusive and instructional leadership.   Closing the opportunity gap, especially with regards to STEM inequity, is a large problem that must begin at the local level.  Teachers must have a “can-do” attitude continually seeking new ideas for culturally responsive pedagogy and STEM education.  School improvement must involve parents.  Teachers must “outreach to parents” in order to “develop common goals and understandings to strengthen student learning” (Seabring, Allensworth, Easton & Luppescu, 2006, p. 22).  For example, having a STEM parent-outreach program connects parents and teachers so that they may collaborate in the best interests of their students.  Having more parent involvement will also better hold teachers accountable for culturally responsive classroom practices.  It makes sense that in order to increase student achievement one must have a school culture centered on student learning.  This includes high academic standards and increased academic rigor for all students (especially those marginalized by the school system).  Finally, a coherent instructional guidance system must be in place to increase student learning.  This “articulates the what and how of instruction”, creates assessments that provide feedback to inform subsequent instructional decisions.  There needs to be an emphasis on the need to “prepare all students to be proficient in STEM, including girls and minorities that are underrepresented in these fields, as well as to inspire these students to learn STEM and motivate them to pursue careers in these fields” (Chiu, Price, & Ovrahim, 2015, p. 8).  Every grade level must be committed to STEM and students of color, and collaborating between grade levels so that teacher instruction is refined.

            Collaboration.  Collaboration is “when members of an inclusive learning community work together as equals to assist students to succeed in the classroom” (Powell, n.d.).  Collaboration is necessary for STEM education reform because collaborative STEM leadership “distributes power, authority, and responsibility across [a] group” (Anderson-Butcher et al., 2004, p. 4).  True collaboration requires an interdependence “characterized by trust, norms of give-and-take, shared responsibilities, consensus-building and conflict resolution mechanisms, shared power and authority and shared information and decision-making systems” (Anderson-Butcher et al., 2004, p. 2).  Collaborative teachers must agree to teach STEM in a framework that fits the school’s mission and vision before true integration is possible.  Basham, Israel, and Maynard (2010) suggest that teachers should work together as a team to make instruction authentic.  Brown, Brown, and Merrill (2011) introduce the idea that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers teach multiple concepts that lend themselves to possible collaboration on a daily basis.   Engaging every staff member is essential for implementing this STEM reform effort to provide equal access and opportunities for STEM foundational thinking. Below I will define current research on collaborative research, and discuss the benefits and obstacles with these strategies.

            Collaborative leadership.  Collaborative leadership “distributes power, authority, and responsibility across [a] group” (Anderson-Butcher, Lawson, Bean, Boone, Kwiatkowski, et al., 2004, p. 4).  True collaboration require an interdependence “characterized by trust, norms of give-and-take, shared responsibilities, consensus-building and conflict resolution mechanisms, shared power and authority and shared information and decision-making systems” (Anderson-Butcher, Lawson, Bean, Boone, Kwiatkowski, et al., 2004, p. 2).  Design principles and strategies for collaboration and collaborative leadership are numerous; however, here I will focus on three: (a) environment, (b) structure, and (c) purpose.  Creating an environment of trust is the first priority for schools engaging in Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) professional development with a STEM foundational thinking focus.  Teachers must be willing to acknowledge their privileges and authority within the school system.  Teachers must be willing to see systems of privilege and oppression clearly before they can analyze how the system works.  The ability to compromise will be difficult for some, especially when denial of oppression is strong.  Finally, in order to obtain our goal of closing these STEM opportunity gaps, teachers must be unified in that single purpose.  Collaborative teachers must agree to this purpose before they can proceed.  Research indicates that the use the professional development to illustrate how “commitment to the overall purpose will support their own interests” (Anderson-Butcher, Lawson, Bean, Boone, Kwiatkowski, et al., 2004, p. 9) is vital to sustainability.  Collaborative leadership is definitely a team approach to solving school-wide inequity problems.  There will be conflict, yet these conflicts must be handled tactfully so that teachers can get to the business of increasing the integration of STEM foundational thinking in all content areas.

            Curriculum and instruction.  Current research offers schools suggestions for STEM curriculum and instruction; however, there are limited examples.  For example, projects such as Engineering is Elementary and Project Lead the Way offer teachers ways to integrate STEM into their curriculum.  They provide example lesson plans and units for teachers to follow, but do not offer ways to create (or recreate) a system-wide elementary school STEM program, especially one that focuses on marginalized student populations.

Basham, Israel, & Maynard (2010) state:

The curriculum that is utilized in a school and its instructional practices are important pieces to look at when considering student achievement. STEM educational strategies must move beyond discipline-specific education.  Integrating all disciplines offers students the opportunity to make sense of the world in an authentic way (p. 15)


True STEM integration requires applying all content to solving real-world problems, which means that it needs to be addressed system-wide rather than just within each individual classroom or lesson.

            Professional learning.  Schools without an effective STEM program often fail to place importance on teacher professional learning.   For example, “one barrier to successful STEM education is the lack of investment in the professional development of teachers to build a strong knowledge base in science, which has been attributed to poor student performance” (Ejiwale, 2013).  In order to overcome this barrier, schools must adopt professional learning programs that can “simultaneously help existing teachers develop deeper understanding of the subjects they teach while exploring mechanisms for integration across STEM and non-STEM disciplines” (Chiu, Price, & Ovrahim, 2015, p. 14).  When an organization has a sustained professional development program, with a clear understanding of the goals, both pedagogical practice and student achievement strengthen.

            Communication.  STEM, as an acronym, stands for Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics.  However, despite having a clear idea of the acronym, many teachers do not have a clear understanding of what STEM education means, especially in K-12 buildings.  “A survey of educational professionals in Northeast Tennessee found that educators have a variety of definitions of STEM, including varied and contradictory terms such as student-focused, integration, hands-on, and project-based education” (Chiu, Price, & Ovrahim, 2015, p. 15).


Educators and administrators need a clear definition of STEM education: one that is based on current research literature and which they can communicate clearly and effectively.  If teachers do not understand and effectively communicate what STEM is, then students will also have a disconnected perception and will be unprepared for STEM careers upon graduation.  For example, “surveys of grade 4-12 students show a lack of awareness of STEM careers, little opportunity to engage with STEM industries, and declining student attitudes in STEM subject areas” (Mahoney, 2010, p. 30).  School districts need to have clear communication, amongst staff, students, and the parent community, as to the definition STEM and justification for school-wide integration.