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6 Ways Teachers Can Help Promote Diversity in STEM Fields


stem fields

“Let us choose for ourselves our path in life, and let us try to strew that path with flowers.” 

Emilie du Châtelet

This quote is from Emilie du Châtelet, 18th-century mathematician and philosopher. It represents the plight of females and minorities trying to establish their authority and sense of belonging in careers dominated by white men. Sadly, for many girls and minority students, the path toward a life in STEM fields still feels impassable. It’s unpaved and ruddy, overgrown with weed-like misconceptions, and blocked with the debris of stereotyped beliefs.

Underrepresentation in STEM fields

Recent figures show that: 

  • STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs are the fastest-growing sector in the US. However, women and underrepresented minorities are the least likely to fill these positions; 
  • The wage gap between male and female counterparts in STEM careers is still an estimated $16,000 annually;  
  • White or Asian men hold 84% of the jobs in science and engineering; 
  • Women earning computer science degrees have dropped by 12 percent since 1991. 

Most are aware these numbers rear their ugly heads in colleges and the workforce. However, the seeds of disparity are planted in students’ high school and possibly even elementary school experiences. This places teachers in important positions as gatekeepers to their students’ future successes. Teachers can help combat the lack of diversity in STEM fields and open the doors of opportunity to all students.

How teachers can help encourage diversity in STEM fields:

1. Develop self-awareness in their teaching.

Most teachers assert themselves as champions of underrepresented students, unaware all the while that they may be inadvertently bringing hidden biases to the classroom. A report in Time magazine found that teachers unconsciously penalize behaviors in some students, particularly girls and minority children, that they encourage in others. While the biases may be hidden, however, the effects are not. Teachers should examine their practice for implicit bias and strive to elevate the status and esteem of all students equally in the classroom.

2. Reassess their classroom assessments.

Test-taking can be a stressful time for all students, but gender and racial bias in assessments can drive the stakes even higher for the students who feel they have the most to prove. What teachers may see as innocuous test questions can contain exclusionary, culturally-insensitive, or stereotype-reinforcing language and images that preclude minority students’ success on the assessment. Teachers must examine their assessment materials for misleading and offensive test questions that can derail students’ concentration and replace them with language that is accessible and favorable to students of all experiences and backgrounds.

3. Commit to students’ cultures.

Minority students will feel most empowered in classrooms that highlight and utilize the diverse backgrounds and perspectives that they bring to the educational sphere. To this end, an increasing number of educators are implementing methods of culturally relevant education in their classrooms. Teachers operating under this theory strive to learn about their students’ cultures so that they can integrate students’ world views and communication styles into STEM experiences in the classroom. 

4. Promote diversity in group projects.

STEM classrooms are the epitome of cooperative learning: students are working together to conduct lab experiments, solve problems, build models. Teachers can leverage this environment to encourage collaboration among diverse students. Within these groups, however, teachers must be aware of how gender and racial constructs can prompt students to fall into the same, comfortable roles based on perceived ability. With careful grouping and delegation of responsibilities, teachers can inspire minority students to assume new roles in the group that will help them discover new skills and build their confidence. 

5. Provide role models students can identify with.

Teachers strive to serve as positive role models for their students. Yet despite some teachers’ attempts at warmth and inspiration, minority students may still struggle to find a sense of belonging in the classroom simply because of the differences they see between themselves and their teachers. Teachers can, however, begin to tear down this wall by establishing themselves as allies of minorities’ progress in STEM careers. Scheduling Zoom meetings with established female or minority scientists, inviting diverse experts into the classroom as guest speakers, adorning the classroom with images of prominent professionals from varied backgrounds, and studying the accomplishments of the unsung heroes of the field can help teachers establish an inclusive classroom culture and provide minority students with real-life mentors that they can look up to. 

6. Support their colleagues.

Bringing guest mentors into the classroom is a great first step, but the key to truly supportive and inclusive STEM classrooms lies within the diversity of teachers themselves. Not only are minorities underrepresented in STEM careers, but they are also noticeably lacking from STEM teaching. Encouraging current and pre-service minority teachers to persevere in their professions will ensure that students have an increasing pool of diverse mentors to guide them along their educational journeys. 

STEM Resources:

Analyzing and restructuring age-old beliefs and practices in education is no easy task. However, it’s what educators must do to bridge the gaps in students’ success in STEM fields. Gender and racial reform in education has been years in the making and is still far from perfect. Teachers have the power to start making a difference now. Here are some resources to promote STEM education among underrepresented students: 

She Can STEM This website shares inspiring stories about females in various STEM careers. It contains links to resources and an educator’s guide. 

I Am a Scientist In its mission to dispel stereotypes and celebrate diversity in STEM, this nonprofit is giving away free poster kits of prominent minority scientists. 

SciGirls This is an accompaniment to the PBS show. The website captivates girls with videos, games, and stories of real girls—just like them—making great strides in STEM projects.  

STEM for All Teaching Tolerance has provided a free lesson plan for students in grades 3-5 to explore a career in STEM. 

MiSTEM Network Teachers, students, and families can access a treasure trove of equity resources for STEM here. This includes interviews with scientists, professional learning opportunities, and links to other websites that highlight diversity in STEM. 

I’m Just Bad at Math! This book tells the tale of a girl who develops a new mindset about her math abilities. 

The road toward equitable education, especially in STEM fields, has been an arduous one. Teachers are taking steps to clear the way for female and minority students to catch up to their advantaged counterparts. Hopefully soon all interested students—regardless of gender or race—will be able to walk toward a career in STEM without obstacles.

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Diversity in STEM fields

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