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Improving equity, diversity in STEM career pathways

“How do we draw more students of color and students who are underrepresented into STEM career fields?” That was the subject of a recent discussion with Christian Anderson of Morgan State University, Adrian Mims of the Calculus Project and SmartBrief editor Kanoe Namahoe.

The narrative that there is a lack of representation among students of color in advanced math and science courses and STEM fields is not good news, Anderson and Mims agree, but we have to know these disparities exist to do something about them, Mims notes. 

Barriers that may be impeding students exist at every level, Anderson says. But even before students get to school, these barriers can begin to be removed with community awareness -- starting with parents, who are the first teachers, he asserts. 

For Mims and the Calculus Project, the goal is to get as many Black and Latinx students as possible to take Calculus in their senior year of high school. This is done in part by creating a course road map that outlines the exact classes students need to take each year to reach this goal, and by teaching parents how to support their students along the way. 

“We try to encourage parents not to say, ‘Oh, I was never good at math. I'm not a math person.’ Because now, it can plant that seed in that child's mind that you come out of the womb, solving equations . . . you're born doing math. Either you have the math DNA or you don't,” he says. 

Explaining to families early on the practical benefits of pursuing STEM careers can also demystify misperceptions about math talent, Anderson says. Convincing parents that students can put themselves on a reliable path to a well-paying job as an engineer or a doctor by following a road map of math and science education can be an effective way to do this, he notes.

Representation in teaching

As for the need for more educators of color into math and science classrooms, Mims suggests another way to frame the issue. “I do believe it is important to have teachers of color in the classroom, but it's important to have the right teachers of color in the classroom,” he says. 

Multiple pathways for people to get into teaching may mean that some teachers are underprepared for the work of ensuring all students in all environments are succeeding at high levels, he says. And in many areas of the country, teachers are not paid well, while the demands of the job remain high, he notes. But misperceptions about teacher salaries and benefits -- particularly in larger districts like Boston -- may also be deterring some students from pursuing the profession as well, he notes.

Anderson says that, when it comes to recruiting more teachers of color to the math and science classroom, the numbers just might not add up, and having a Black teacher does not necessarily mean higher achievement for all Black students, he notes. So it’s important that all teachers be “prepared to provide culturally responsive and culturally relevant instruction,” so all students can learn, he says.

When it comes to classroom teachers, Anderson shares two belief systems to consider: what the teachers believe about whether their students can learn, and what they believe about the teaching and learning of the subject. He notes that in the case of mathematics, Eurocentric, white-dominated content is embedded in the way teachers are trained to teach the subject.

He notes that, to address the social-emotional aspect of not having more teachers of color in classrooms,  it can also be effective to have STEM professionals of color -- a scientist or an engineer, for example -- volunteering and interacting with students.. “That may be the motivation that you need, that those students of color need . . . to say, hey, II see somebody that looks like me that's working in a STEM profession,” he says. 

Getting students on board with STEM

One of the core values of the Calculus Project is that students own their learning, Mims says, and he explains the formula. “We have students build communities. They collaborate, they solve problems together in groups. They eat together. We go on field trips together. They actually see people who look like them, who work in STEM fields. You know, to be it you need to see it. So, we're doing all of these things to kind of help them connect the dots,” he says.

Mims says some teens the project works with aspire to become professional athletes or entertainers. He says he asks them to do their research about what the odds of success in those fields look like, and they are educated about how athletes like Michael Jordan have also made a significant share of their fortunes through business. “Life isn't either or. You can aspire to become a professional athlete, but you can also aspire to become a scholar,” he says.

The program also gets to know its students, to find out what they are passionate about and help them understand how math is connected to their goals. Older students are paid to teach and mentor younger students, modeling early on how hard work and sweat equity in math can lead to a real paycheck.

But he also stresses that this idea may be a harder sell for the adults. “I have more problems going into school districts, working with the adults, to try to get them to change their mindset and believe that all kids can learn, but they all need different types of help and support.”

Anderson also believes that ensuring that students have authentic learning experiences is the key to engaging students in math. He shares how during the pandemic he enlisted a computer science student from Morgan State to act as a mentor and work with his son on building a computer, making connections with algebra and other math concepts throughout the project.  “And that was the first time that my son was excited about mathematics because it was a tangible product that he owned in that particular process.” he says. 

Adjusting teaching to reach all students 

When considering how best to teach students who may learn differently than they did, math teachers need to identify and reflect on their experiences and beliefs about learning and teaching the subject. “Math teachers need to identify what is their cultural backpack. What cultural expectations and experiences do they bring into that math space? And how do they exist in that particular space?” Anderson asserts. “And what we’ll find out is that math is a white-dominated space,” he says. So teachers may need to seek out new approaches through professional development or PLCs.  And they need to let students know that there is a place for them in the math and science space, he says. “And then in turn we can begin to get to mathematics.”

Mims also believes that professional development, more collaboration and sharing best practices can help math teachers differentiate instruction and find approaches that work for their students, particularly as districts eliminate tracking and students of varying abilities are taught together. “I strongly encourage teachers who are struggling, working with students in a particular way to get to know other teachers in the math department, and also find out what they are doing,” he notes.

Katharine Haber is an editor for SmartBrief Education.

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