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STEM Education and the Socioeconomic Construct: Overcoming the Barriers

Students engage over a microscopeby Jacquie McGregor

“Everyone has a stake in improving STEM education. Inspiring all our students to be capable in math and science will help them contribute in an increasingly technology-based economy, and will also help America prepare the next generation of STEM professionals-scientists, engineers, architects and technology professionals-to ensure our competitiveness.” – Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education

According to a recent survey released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, jobs in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — accounted for nearly 25 percent of the labor force. In the next 10 years, STEM-related jobs in the U.S are expected to increase by 29 percent, adding 2.1 million jobs by the year 2020. Furthermore, the earnings projections for STEM workers are high. In 2010, STEM workers earned an average of 26 percent more than non-STEM professionals, even when accounting for age, gender, and ethnicity.

Why should these statistics matter to teachers? Quite plainly, the students sitting in our classrooms now will be the men and women in the labor force in 2020. We are responsible for providing 2.1 million workers who are qualified to work in STEM occupations.  This is a significant task; in order to ensure that our students are well prepared for life beyond the classroom, teachers must give them the necessary foundations in the science, technology, mathematics and engineering-related subjects.

STEM education: Equality of opportunity?

As most teachers are well aware, the federal government has recognized the need for an increased attention to STEM education. In 2009, the White House launched the Educate to Innovate program, aimed at improving STEM education in America. The goals of the program are threefold:

  • Increase STEM literacy so that all students can learn deeply and think critically in science, math, engineering, and technology
  •  Move American students from the middle of the STEM pack to top in the next decade
  •  Expand STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and girls

These are lofty goals, and the need for them is obvious. However, in the four years since the program’s inception, concern has risen on the third point: are underrepresented and lower-socioeconomic status students in America actually receiving a quality education in STEM subjects?

According to several sources, the answer is no. Consider the following from the AAUW’s research report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics:

  • In 2005, only six percent of African American high school graduates and seven percent of Hispanic high school graduates had completed calculus, compared to 16 percent of White high school graduates
  • A 2006 study of STEM education in the United States noted that only five percent of African American students and 12 percent of Hispanic students were prepared to take biology as a college undergraduate
  • In 2002, almost 700,000 minority students graduated high school; only 28,000 of those, however, had taken the necessary coursework to pursue an engineering degree in college

The anecdotal evidence is even more discouraging. In a January 2013 article in Scientific American, noted biologist and outreach scientist Danielle N. Lee described her experiences working with low socioeconomic status and minority students in a public high school in Missouri. She found that not only were these students not being provided with an adequate STEM education, they were actually being discouraged from participating in science fairs, summer programs, and classroom extension experiences.

Why the STEM gap still exists for poor and minority students

In her article, Lee noted two main reasons for the continued disparity in STEM education in the U.S.: lack of funding and lack of support. First, she detailed a significant lack of resources for STEM programs in lower socioeconomic school populations. Despite increases in STEM funding, as well as availability of STEM grant monies, student in low socioeconomic and minority populations are still struggling, lacking the most basic resources. Lee noted that students in her schools did not have the in-school supplies to create higher-level science projects and were unable to get the necessary tools at home, either. Additionally, students suffered from a lack of trained professionals from whom they could receive guidance in the sciences. Lee pointed out that school districts that are already financially strapped often lack the resources to hire teachers with significant training in science and research.

A second reason for the gap in STEM education is the lack of support lower socioeconomic and minority students are receiving when pursuing opportunities in STEM education, both in and out of the classroom. When it comes to students in low socioeconomic populations, perception of ability plays a major role in success. Poor students are often the victims of inadvertent discrimination because those in positions of power assume that low socioeconomic status leads to a lack of ability and enthusiasm in STEM fields. Students find themselves derailed before they ever begin, and, consequently, lose motivation to pursue opportunities in STEM education.

The necessity of change: STEM education is not reserved for the privileged

Implementing change in STEM education is no longer just a goal; it is a necessity. With the current (and predicted) explosion in STEM professions, the United States faces the real possibility of being unable to compete due to the lack of a qualified workforce. Couple that with an increase in the minority populations in the U.S, and the need for equality in STEM education becomes ever more apparent. STEM education should not be reserved for the privileged; all students should be given the opportunity to pursue an education in the country’s most competitive professions. It is time to take a long, hard look at educational inequality in America, and to finally do something about it. Truly, our competitive future depends on it.

Jacquie McGregor has taught a wide variety of subjects in 15 years as an educator, including music, art, language arts and life skills. She currently works in online education as a course mentor, teacher and curriculum writer, at both the K-12 and university levels. She is completing her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focusing on arts programming in educational free markets.

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