Promoting Equity in STEM through Education
While living around people from various racial, religious, and political backgrounds has become commonplace, issues like discrimination and inequality are still highly prevalent across all dimensions, particularly socially and financially.
Education has been a major focal point in the fight to overcome these issues and promote equity, given its ramifications in other areas. In particular, efforts to tackle inequality in education have been focused primarily on STEM, given that this is an area of high demand, that typically leads to higher-paying jobs.
This is a continuous effort that is still far from achieving its goal, so we must understand what our current situation is and how we can encourage progress toward equity in education, and consequently, other areas.
Why do we need to promote equity in education?
When we consider the issue of inequality in education and, more broadly, across our society, we need to think of both an individual and a collective dimension. Simply living within society means that anything that impacts one individual can affect all of us as a consequence.
Concerning this issue, it’s clear that the lack of opportunities for several individuals as a result of their characteristics, like ethnicity, gender, or economic status, has a trickle-down effect on our society as a whole.
As such, we need to take a close look at how the current lack of equity in STEM education is impacting individuals, as well as their communities and wider society.
As research shows, the inequalities seen in STEM aren’t caused by a lack of interest in these areas. Instead, for many students, interest may simply not be enough motivation to follow a career in STEM, particularly as we consider the barriers that many of them face when trying to access and achieve good results in this field.
The consensus is that this issue begins with a lack of access, in particular, to STEM programs, qualified teachers, appropriate instructional resources, and opportunities in and out of the classroom to engage with sciences.
Research indicates that the disparity in access to STEM and resources hinders students from learning in such a way that that is likely the cause of a gap in aptitude between the students affected and the general student population.
Even for those affected that choose to pursue STEM degrees in college, the effects observed continued to impact them further down the line, as the limitation in STEM-related experiences before college and the consequent impact on students’ learning has been shown to relate to lower rates of completion of STEM degrees.
Moreover, given that STEM degrees can cause significant changes in people’s lives, mainly due to the association with higher wages, deterring students from successfully following this path and completing their degrees, can have a key social and financial impact on them. Essentially the disparities to which students are subjected from early on in their lives contribute to a vicious cycle of inequality and poverty.
It’s not difficult to understand how inequality affects the individuals that are mainly concerned; however, we also need to understand how this issue affected communities and society as a whole.
The research that has been conducted on this matter points out three key areas of impact: political, economic, and practical.
Concerning the first, we need to consider that the students in school today will eventually become the next generation of professionals and leaders. Reports have inclusively established a relationship between global leadership and adequate education.
Further, as we consider that these disparities typically relate to people’s backgrounds, it becomes even more pressing to consider this point, as having professionals with different experiences and perspectives would help generate new ideas to strengthen our society.
From an economic perspective, the demand for professionals from diverse backgrounds and experiences has substantially increased as more and more employers become aware of the benefits these individuals could bring to their companies, particularly in today’s globalized society.
However, given that there is still a gap in access and achievement in STEM, this demand is still not adequately met. Some even consider that the lack of diversity amongst the STEM workforce derives primarily from a lack of qualified professionals from racial, ethnic, and religious minorities as well as women and people from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Finally, in a more practical sense, for companies searching for diverse workers, it would be significantly more efficient to simply use talent from their community and train them adequately.
The main point here is to understand that the inequalities in our society, in this case within education, affect all of us, not just those that are discriminated against.
Where are we at?
As mentioned previously, some of the groups most affected by educational disparities are racial and ethnic minorities, women, and first-generation students, which are generally from low socioeconomic backgrounds. To understand the current landscape in our society, particularly in the United States, it’s simpler to first focus on each group individually.
The reports provided by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), indicate that between the years 2000 and 2015, there was an increase in the percentage of children enrolled in a school that are Hispanic, Asian, or from two or more races, while the percentage of White and Black students decreased.
Despite this demographic change, disparities across students, particularly in STEM, continued to be prevalent.
For instance, when we look at high school students, the NCES reports indicate that those who are White or Asian earn both more Mathematics and Science credits than students from other races. White students also earned more Engineering and Technology credits than other groups.
To aggravate the matter, more Black and Hispanic students earned no credit in any science-related classes in comparison with students who are White, showing a clear aptitude gap between these subsets of high schoolers, which will impact their chances of pursuing careers in STEM.
As mentioned previously, this does not mean that students of color are less interested in STEM careers; the research on this topic rather points out the disparity in learning opportunities as a primary reason for these achievement gaps.
One aspect that perfectly encapsulates this point is that of Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Reports by the NCES show that White students are more likely to earn any AP credits (as well as Science AP credits specifically) than the other groups of high school students.
One key factor that plays into this discrepancy between white students and students of color, is the availability of STEM AP courses in high schools. Indeed, those that have a higher proportion of diverse students, are generally less likely to offer certain AP courses, including some of the core STEM courses.
The gap between genders in STEM has long been an issue of concern. Despite the growth of the feminist movement and the increase in women’s rights, women are still significantly underrepresented as STEM professionals.
NCES indicates that, while in general more women than men earned bachelor’s degrees between 2015 and 2016, the contrary was observed when looking specifically at STEM fields, with 64% of STEM degrees being awarded to men.
This disparity only grows as we look into higher levels of education. For example, in 2009, only 37.7%, 20.3%, and 21.3% of the PhDs awarded within the areas of chemistry, physics, and engineering in the United States, were earned by women.
Similarly to the inequality observed according to race and ethnicity, the gap between genders begins early on and is prevalent in the opportunities for access, achievement, and status across STEM fields. While in the first instance, inequalities are likely tied to discrimination and the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty, in the case of women, inequity is largely related to sexism and societal stereotypes for gender-specific behaviors.
Even today, some people even in the STEM community feel that women lack the same skills and knowledge as men and that their focus should be on family rather than a career. While this may not be the opinion of the broader society, this sexist message is still relayed to many girls that therefore steer away from STEM.
Research on this topic has shown that children living in poverty are more likely to have a lower performance throughout their entire academic journey, and consequently more likely not to complete their education.
Even for those who complete high school and decide to attend college, many are first-generation students. These are disproportionately individuals of color, as poverty is also co-related with ethnicity and race. In fact, in 2016, 31% of Black children and 26% of Hispanic children in the U.S. were living in poverty.
As can be imagined, first-generation students, affected in most cases by a lack of opportunities due to their race and their reduced economic capacity, are less likely to opt for STEM majors and to complete their college education.
Studies have revealed that these trends are primarily caused by a lack of experiences and opportunities in STEM, which can not only contribute to higher adherence to these fields and the construction of STEM identity but also help students grow their knowledge in these areas in preparation for college.
Further, having a parent already in STEM is related to a higher likelihood of pursuing a career in one of these fields.
Essentially, the lack of exposure to STEM through family or in and out-of-school activities has a significant impact on children, who become less likely to succeed or even pursue a career in a scientific field. In the end, this feeds into a larger cycle of poverty, with individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds receiving fewer opportunities that could help them improve their conditions and those of their families and communities.
Overall, while the efforts made so far to increase equity within education have had an impact, it is clear that we’re still far from reaching our goals. Despite all that has been accomplished so far, even today, the STEM workforce continues not to be representative of the population in the United States, which has a wider impact on our society.
Making a difference
A fundamental way in which we can enhance equity within our society, as we’ve seen, relates to education. Several programs today are aimed at facilitating access to learning opportunities and resources for children, especially those most disproportionately affected.
Here we present a couple of examples of such programs, that you can support.
Apple’s Community Education Initiative
The CEI launched in 2019 with the purpose of providing more learning and career opportunities for students from backgrounds typically underrepresented in the field of technology.
Through this program, Apple partners with schools and other educational institutions and organizations and offers them resources to help increase learning opportunities for students. These resources vary from Apple hardware and software to scholarships.
Today, the CEI counts with 150 partners that support the students across more than 600 different communities throughout the world.
DataEthics4All’s STEAM in AI Research and Build Program
DataEthics4All is a non-profit organization that aims to promote a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive workforce for the future. As such, one of our main goals is to raise awareness of the barriers to entry in tech for everyone, especially girls and people of color and to help support their education.
We are mindful of the increasing impact of technology in our society and, more specifically, our workforce. As such, we find that more than ever before, it’s essential to support students that want to join STEAM areas.
For us, STEAM isn’t just Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, but also Sociology, Technical Education, Ethics, Analytics, and Mentoring.
Our aim is for students to have the chance to explore STEAM and discover both new linear and non-linear career paths so that they have the best chance of success in the future.
With this in mind, we created the STEAM in AI Research and Build Program, which allows high school students to create a unique project while being mentored by professionals in the fields of Data Science, Artificial Intelligence, and STEAM.
A primary focus of the STEAM in AI Mentoring Program is not only helping students learn through experience, but also allowing them to receive guidance that may help them throughout their careers.
If you’re a high school student and have an interest in STEAM, consider joining the STEAM in AI Research and Build Program, independently of your background and socioeconomic status. To learn more about this project, visit our website, and to register for the program click here.