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Every Day Actions for Equality in STEM

Have you ever noticed what the scientists look like in the cartoons? You know - those crazy white-haired guys? Even better, have you ever done a Google search of “famous scientists” or “famous engineers”? Go ahead - I will wait…

. . .What did you see? Yep, for the most part you saw those same old white-haired guys. Stereotypes generally do come from somewhere. However, stereotypes lead to some problems with students who don’t fit the mold. Is STEM open to someone who looks different than the stereotype? Is there something we can do to intervene so that anyone can believe they can be a STEM professional?

How can we encourage women and communities of color to embrace science?

One program that seeks to encourage more women is the STEP Up program, sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers. STEP Up is a research-based set of lessons and practices designed for physics teachers to incorporate in the classroom to help encourage more women to consider earning an undergraduate degree in physics. Many of the practices from STEP Up would work equally well to encourage other underrepresented student populations to consider any type of STEM career. The STEP Up project lays out “Every Day Actions for Educators” to give classroom teachers ideas on ways to make the STEM class more inclusive for everyone.

“Every Day Actions” spells out ideas about best ways to interact with students, either individually or in a group.  In addition, there are recommendations on best ways to facilitate group work and ideas to consider when planning lessons and assessing students. Together, these research-based actions will create a better and equitable environment for all students.

When planning lessons, the teacher sets the tone for positive attitudes towards STEM. Make sure everyone can participate, collaborate, and receive attention in the class. Find topics that resonate with students’ values, experiences, and interests. Help your students with growth mindset ideas that lower grades do not mean failure. Always ask yourself if your lessons have a wide variety of contexts and are equitable.

When interacting with students, always encourage and explicitly reinforce your students’ abilities. Recognize students when they work hard, even if they don’t quite succeed. I love to tell my students to “Fail Boldly” to help them overcome being discouraged by setbacks. Support new opportunities and learn what students value so you can tie your STEM lessons to your students’ values and passions.

Next, make the group work about equality. Make sure each student has an opportunity to be an active participant and contribute to group discussions. Research shows that female students are often marginalized in STEM settings due in part to having less experience with the various tools and techniques. Make sure you choose your groups wisely and scaffold group collaborations so that everyone contributes and has a voice.

Finally, be an advocate for your students outside of the classroom.

Research shows that students who persist in STEM careers are influenced by others besides the teacher. Unfortunately, some students do not get an opportunity to build relationships with STEM professions because they do not have access through family or community connections. Reach out to other teachers, counselors, and parents to leverage their help to find STEM opportunities to help build STEM relationships for your students. Look for activities for your students outside of school like coding competitions, Saturday science at museums, or open houses at observatories.  Even visits to state parks might bring your students in touch with biologists and astronomers. Invite guest speakers into the classroom either in person or Zoom. These are just a few ways to advocate for your students.

If every teacher who interacts with students in math, science, technology, and engineering would add these “Every Day Actions” into their STEM classrooms, we can begin to overcome some of those stereotypes about what a scientist looks like. If you are interested in knowing more about the STEP up lessons, go to  https://engage.aps.org/stepup/home to download the lessons and practices. Our goals should be to have the graduating STEM professional look more like the whole USA population spectrum. Then, we will know we have succeeded when the scientists in the cartoons are women and the Google search engine finds a kaleidoscope of engineers.


Dr. Colleen Epler-Ruths is the regional stem education consultant for the Central Susquehanna Valley intermediate unit. She regularly tells teachers to encourage students to  “fail boldly." She is a STEP Up Lead Ambassador for the AAPT, 2020 finalist for PA Teacher of the Year, and 2020 semi-finalist for Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship. She also enjoys all sorts of outdoor activities including stargazing, camping with family, and gardening. She can be reached at [email protected]




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