SIP 8.9 Equity Pedagogy in STEM


Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Some people like to think about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) as value-free and unaffected by bias. That is such a wonderful idea and maybe one day we will get there, but for now STEM fields do not match the changing state and local demographic patterns, and STEM majors still struggle with retention-related issues. The National Science Foundation reports a long-standing trend of lower retention and degree completion rates in science and engineering for both women and students from underrepresented groups (NSF, 2017). Faculty have room to enhance classes and interactions in ways that help all students better learn the material in STEM fields – ways that especially enhance the experiences of women and students from underrepresented groups.

Take a SIP of this: Equity Pedagogy in STEM

Equity in STEM education requires that all students are provided with equitable opportunities to learn STEM, become engaged in STEM and feel welcome in STEM spaces. This goes beyond getting people in the door, this means working against prior discrimination in the field, working actively to make the space and the learning in that space reflect experiences, understandings, and role models from those groups as well. In the literature, equality is asking instructors to give the same experience to all students, and equity is asking instructors to give students what they need to thrive academically. What would it take for students from underrepresented groups to thrive in STEM fields? They need to have access to quality space, equipment, and teachers who support and motivate a wider variety of students. STEM equity also asks instructors to connect to all students’ interests and experiences in order to broaden participation and retention in STEM fields. The National Research Council offers several specific suggestions for achieving these goals.

Approach STEM Learning as part of Living in a Culture

Students come to college having explored and engaged with their surroundings their whole lives. They have experienced cause and effect in the phenomena around them. These experiences can be reframed as STEM experiences in their day to day lives (fishing, farming, playing sports, driving, riding amusement park rides, balancing a budget, etc.). When students enter STEM-related courses they do not leave their cultural world views at the door. Instructors can recognize this reality and actively use these experiences in lessons to increase student engagement in STEM concepts. For example, an instructor can include investigations of the microbiology of local community health practices and how they differ and how they are similar.

Relate Student Discourses to Scientific Discourses

Students make sense of natural phenomena in a variety of ways and will explain those phenomena differently depending on who they are and their local context. Instructors can help students transition from using more informal language for scientific phenomena to using disciplinary terminology and forms of discourse by having students describe and discuss the

same phenomena in both modes in the same class period. The act of letting students first use their own way of explaining a concept then translating the concept into scientific jargon honors students’ ways of expressing themselves and teaches ways valued in the academy.

Build on Prior Interest and Identity

Instructors often have to battle against students not seeing themselves as able to learn STEM. Therefore, instructors have to work to help students see themselves as being able to learn STEM content and thus able to develop a STEM identity. This happens through positive learning experiences. Instructors can do this by tapping into prior interests and showing how those interests have relevance in STEM fields. All students can benefit from having instructors purposefully relate to prior interests, but the benefits are particularly valuable for students who feel disenfranchised and disconnected from STEM. For example, instructors can ask students on the first day what they do for work and then weave in how those professions have STEM components embedded in them. Students will then see STEM as already a part of who they are.

Leverage Students’ Cultural Funds of Knowledge

Certain cultural groups develop deep and meaningful knowledge of the natural world through participation in informal learning experiences while growing up in specific settings. Such culturally influenced ways of approaching nature and the environment reflect diverse perspectives that can be used in designing STEM learning experiences. For example, students who grow up in rural areas have deep and meaningful experiences of natural relationships that can be brought into class lessons. Students who grow up in other countries can share how their country understands and engages with the concept of global warming. Students who grow up in urban areas have deep experiences with interactional effects that happen when there is population density. Again, bring in their experiences as valuable, scientific experiences to help them equate their experiences with that of the expectations in STEM fields and to help them see that they, and people like them, already exist in STEM spaces – even if those spaces are not traditionally defined as STEM spaces.

Make Diversity Visible

Equity in STEM education requires detailed attention to the circumstances of specific demographic groups who have been underrepresented in STEM fields. When appropriate and relevant, examples and documents should explicitly represent diverse groups. Include significant contributions of women and of people from diverse cultures and ethnicities. Even though it is difficult to represent all groups, this does not mean that most groups should be excluded. There are now many great books like Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World that can be shared with students.

Create Assignments that use Multiple Modes of Representation, Engagement, and Action and Expression

Faculty have many options in how to share information with students, how to ask them to work with information, and how to have students show what they know.

Students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds often thrive when given many ways to engage with STEM content and many ways to demonstrate their knowledge. See SIP 6.10 Universal Design for Learning in STEM for a more in-depth strong instructional practice on this topic.

Some questions to ask yourself as you continue to push your classes to be more equitable:

  • What are your near and long-term goals in promoting equity and social justice in STEM? What are possible next steps?
  • Think about the scientific phenomena you teach and the concepts you want students to understand. How do they relate to the interests and practices of your students’ communities? How can you overlap your instruction with the lives of students?
  •  How do you involve those you teach (students, their families, their communities) in your teaching decisions?

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Equity pedagogy in STEM

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

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