TFS - Fall 2022

STEM as an Equalizer: building inclusion

Lets Talk Science Four students and teacher with ozobots

Elementary and secondary science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education can catalyze the development of inclusive teams in classrooms and schools, and encourage greater diversity across STEM career fields. Building on students’ innate curiosity, educators can foster the development of ‘inquiring minds’ by encouraging familiarity with the nature of science and through the regular use of inquiry,  scientific exploration and engineering design processes – in and out of the classroom. Using these STEM-based approaches, in combination with other ways of knowing that are holistic and integrated, will encourage more students to see themselves in STEM and become better equipped for their futures.

While educators are front-line in the classroom, administrators have a critical role in setting the tone and culture of a school. They are key to fostering a school-wide culture of curiosity and inquiry that will develop resilient learners. Helping and encouraging educators to adopt STEM learning practices across all grades and programs in a school can accomplish this.

STEM offers common vocabulary and a ‘toolkit’ of practises, such as experimental design. This can break down barriers and build inclusion when used by students to understand and tackle problems that are important to them and/or their community. Just as research labs and engineering teams often include professionals with very diverse backgrounds, cultures, countries and languages to collaborate on projects, students can be encouraged to build projects and teams that reflect their own diversity to tackle challenges, identify innovative solutions and address concerns in their communities. A great real-world example of how STEM can anchor diverse teams is the International Space Station.  Think about building a culture that mimics the teams responsible for such an incredible STEM accomplishment – one that collaborates across cultures to anchor global teams in the common pursuit of knowledge – teams on which every individual member contributes from their area of experience and expertise regardless of location, culture or language.

In this way, STEM education can also be an equalizer for student engagement in schools, especially when coupled with an  inclusive view of how we gather and assess evidence, and consider its impact.

Societies around the world have explored, expanded, developed, understood and recorded evidence of existence using STEM-based knowledge for millennia – far earlier than the 19th Century concept of “Western science”.  This has been documented through scrolls, petroglyphs, geographic markers, oral knowledge and more.  As humans continue to evolve and our planet changes, how we seek and develop our knowledge is also changing – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we are returning to an earlier and more holistic or integrated state!  Increasingly, people are recognizing the critical importance of including diverse perspectives to complement STEM-based approaches.  This, increasingly inclusive, approach could help more students ‘see themselves in STEM’.

An example of this is how Western-trained scientists are recognizing the value that an Indigenous scientific lens can bring to their work – and how it complements and expands Western scientific approaches. Co-author and Equity, Director at Let’s Talk Science, Tammy Webster brings personal experience from a First Nations perspective as she developed her own science identity, which ultimately led her to becoming a classroom teacher with STEM responsibilities.

Four Indigenous students with Let’s Talk Science volunteers, connecting science and technology with the outdoors. Photos courtesy of: Lets Talk Science

Like many of her peers growing up in an Indigenous community, Tammy did not have the role models, textbooks, research or other tools to see herself in STEM and was, in fact, one of only a few Indigenous students she knew who pursued science in university.  That might have been very different if there had been meaningful and relevant role models available. Her learning journey might have also been very different if her high school and university peers understood the realities of reserve life without ongoing explanation or if First Nations perspectives had been included in textbooks and teaching practices. Her own science identity might have been forged earlier and stronger if her reports were not penalized for incorporating a First Nations perspective but rather encouraged and celebrated for the diversity of her knowledge.

We are at a crossroads and school leaders can ensure we move forward in important new ways that both incorporate the best of Western science and Indigenous Ways of Knowing, and embrace the broad diversity of experience and perspectives in our society. While the education environment has evolved since Tammy’s time in university, more needs to be done to help students – Indigenous and other – develop a science identity that will lead them towards STEM education and careers.

When thinking about science as an equalizer, science identity plays a significant role. Students need meaningful experiences that allow them to see themselves succeeding in STEM. School administrators are positioned to ensure the school climate reflects a welcoming, professional and inclusive community that is inquiry-focused. Schools can be the beacons of scientific culture and community. Scientific identity is an element of the STEM tapestry that can build confidence and a sense of belonging for those who historically might have been missed or have given up on pursuing STEM. STEM is everywhere around us and, as such, can level the playing field for many equity-deserving groups.

Today’s reality is that in the world of work, people from racialized groups, lower incomes, multi-generational families, people with disabilities and women continue to be less likely to pursue careers in STEM, especially those engineering and physical sciences. In Canada, those pursuing STEM education and careers are predominantly white, from heteronormative families, who have affluence and often possess postsecondary education. With growing attention on the value and importance of diverse teams, we are beginning to see a positive shift but we cannot be complacent. Educators and administrators need to work together to start earlier by helping students from a broad diversity of backgrounds develop their science identity.

Catalyzing an inquiry-based school culture doesn’t necessarily require STEM expertise, and in fact, most administrators do not have a background in STEM.  Setting a positive school culture comes from passion, desire, awareness, and knowledge. Administrators, regardless of their subject expertise, can encourage, celebrate, participate and be active STEM learners.

A positive, inquiry-based school culture reflects an administrator who encourages everyone to be amazed by and wonder at the world around them. One who gets their hands dirty outside with students and educators as they engage in play-based learning; makes a point of asking open and probing questions as students share and demonstrate their expanding STEM knowledge and skills with their peers and educators. As a leader and role model, administrators can advocate and model inquiry learning for all ages. They can support inquiry processes that include cross-curricular, multi-disciplinary or hands-on coursework. They can celebrate and accentuate the importance of diverse STEM perspectives throughout the school, support continuous learning for educators, and encourage visits and input from outside experts.  And they can engage community partners that augment learning. By providing tools and resources so that all students can identify with STEM, administrators will create a school culture that nurtures and grows the wonder that comes with STEM for everyone.

By: Tammy Webster and Bonnie Schmidt

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