I met Dr. Judith Salley when I was a student at South Carolina State University, a historically Black university in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Salley was only the second Black educator I had encountered since second grade and the first Black female scientist I had ever interacted with. She asked me a question no one ever had before: “You know, Jackie, you really are excelling in my comparative anatomy class. Have you ever considered going into a science field?”
I hadn’t. For starters, my vision of a scientist came from central casting: White, male, usually over 50, with an unruly crop of gray hair and horn-rimmed spectacles. That wasn’t me. Plus, despite my obvious aptitude, no educator had ever suggested science as a pathway until that day.
I am far from the only female or Black student who only began to contemplate a future in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) in college. Women and people of color remain underrepresented in STEM-related professions: Only 29 percent of women held science and engineering jobs as of 2017, and only 13 percent of such jobs were held by “underrepresented minorities.”
Organizations like mine, Code.org, are working to boost those numbers by making computer science and related subjects more engaging and accessible to all K–12 students, especially young women and underrepresented groups. Based on my teaching experience, here are four ways that teachers can engage and support students from diverse backgrounds in STEM classes.
1. Reflect Who They Are
Early in my career as an elementary school science teacher, I would spend hours searching for posters for my classroom’s walls. I wanted students of all races, genders, and faith traditions to see themselves in those images and to draw inspiration from them. One of my favorites featured Michael Jordan in his No. 23 Chicago Bulls jersey, accompanied by a quote explaining how his “failures” made him a better player.
What a missed opportunity. I was teaching science, not basketball. My students needed to see pictures of STEM professionals who looked like them, like Darryll Pines, a Black aerospace engineer who is now president of the University of Maryland, or Angela Benton, an entrepreneur whose name routinely appears on lists of prominent African Americans in the technology sector.
Students of color do not see many people of color in the STEM field. As they progress from high school to college, the numbers of their peers of color decrease, they often lack support from a community of their peers, and they often feel alone and discouraged. Surround your students with images of successful STEM professionals, and they’ll grow up knowing they can become one.
2. Elevate Their Voices
Classrooms should provide opportunities to learn other perspectives in an inclusive environment or space. They should be a place where students’ ideas are valued and respected, not dismissed as naive or idealistic.
Encourage debates inside the classroom. Seek input from students on problems in their communities that STEM can solve. Make space for students to present evidence from hands-on projects to their peers, explaining why their conclusion is the right one.
In my science classes, I’d routinely group students together to design investigations and develop and explain their conclusions. Then I’d encourage them to defend their work. My students used large whiteboards to capture their ideas and thoughts. They used these boards to explain their conclusions using pictures, words, and or symbols. They would call a “board” meeting, and we would gather in a circle and the students would present their findings to their peers. The discussions often became quite lively, especially when individual students disagreed with the group’s conclusions. These discussions built a community of learning where each student had a voice—and the chance to use it.
3. Leverage Their Experiences
There’s no place in STEM instruction for students to simply sit at their desks struggling to pay attention to a boring lecture. Science demands their action and participation. Real-world phenomena resonate with kids, which is why new resources like BrainPOP Science are using such phenomena to engage kids through scientific investigations.
Teachers can provide students with experiences that demonstrate the day’s lesson, then leverage those experiences to make learning come alive. Science can come alive in your classroom through a student’s lived experience. This requires some investigation on your part, for you to know where students live and their community.
When I was a STEM coordinator in Washington, DC, public schools, we embarked on a grade-wide STEM project. Students were placed into four groups representing the four quadrants of DC. Part of their project was to convince a non-DC resident which quadrant was the best to live in based on several factors, including the environment. Students tested water and soil samples, and we used simulations to manipulate large data sets. BrainPop provides this type of invaluable resource to the classroom. Students were able to connect their science classroom to their community.
4. Start With Their Teacher: You
Building an inclusive classroom begins with the teacher. Recognize unconscious biases and understand how your own educational experiences have impacted the way you teach STEM subjects. Acknowledge the lack of diversity in science. Call it out not only to build awareness, but to highlight the opportunities and possibilities that exist.
Kids, especially girls and students of color, shouldn’t have to wait until they’re in college to consider STEM as a career pathway. The first step in that process is making all students realize they belong in the STEM classroom—and workplace.