Monthly Archives: June 2013

STEM Equity & Diversity: a Sisyphean Task

“As a first year teacher a parent accused me of favoring girls over boys in my earth science course.  In my defense, I explained I was working with boys and girls equally (50/50) and that perhaps this was the first time her son had experienced equity.”

STEM equity continues to elude educators.   Often assessed in terms of undergraduate degrees awarded to women and traditionally underrepresented populations — STEM equity, outside the life, medical, and social sciences, remains a source of concern and frustration for many.   Over thirty years of extensive research, by authors such as Seymour[1] and Tobias[2], articulates the nations’ shortsightedness in addressing the challenge resulting in an inability to engage and retain women and minorities in many STEM undergraduate programs.  If thirty years of research has illuminated the problem, why do we continue to lack equity in STEM education?

“There is no silver bullet”.

- Courtney Reed-Jenkins (NAPE)

 Extensive and disparate barriers complicate efforts to remediate the lack of diversity in STEM.   According to research by the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) root causes that inhibit students from pursuing “nontraditional career preparation”, such as women becoming physicists or men becoming cosmetologists, fall into domains such as education, career information, family, the individual, and society.  Within these domains, root causes range from (lack of) early intervention to self-efficacy and from media messages to family characteristics.  All communities suffer from multiple impediments varying in degree and nature suggesting the need for unique solutions to increasing STEM equity and diversity.

 Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to participate and work with local and national leaders to promote efforts that lead to STEM equity and diversity.  Last month the Colorado Department of Education in collaboration with the NAPE introduced the STEM Equity Pipeline — an effort to use collaborative impact[3] to ensure equity in state and local STEM education efforts.  In this collaboration, NAPE and CDE elected to work closely with the states’ Career and Technical Education (CTE) community.  NAPE partnered with Colorado specifically because it recognized a rising tide of interest and commitment across and within disparate communities: industry, government/policy, and education.  NAPE and CDE hope to harness and focus the energy behind this wave, propelling it along a trajectory for success.  The kickoff meeting and workshop identified the need for a) collecting data b) identifying and selecting vocal representatives and c) creating a central database of STEM resources.

If NAPE’s STEM Equity Pipeline represents a national effort, the work of the Latin American Center for Arts, Science, and Education (CLACE) defines grassroots change.  Each week for a semester CLACE runs afterschool programs in STEM education at schools that caters to the education of traditionally underrepresented populations.  All students are welcome and families of every economic background take advantage of the extra hour of instruction and engagement in the sciences.  CLACE runs two signature programs:  Video and Green Labs.  Video Lab seeks to engage middle and high school age students in investigations and story telling around climate change.  Students work with videographers and scientists to learn about and articulate their understanding of climate change through bilingual media products.  Green Labs, designed for K-5, provides students the opportunity to study earth system sciences using simple, inquiry based activities and art.  CLACE selects facilitators for its afterschool programs from within the local community, seeking individuals who model academic and professional success in their fields of expertise.  By drawing upon leadership from within the community CLACE provides students of traditionally underrepresented populations the opportunity to redefine their definition of opportunity and success post-secondary school.

CLACE is an example of “informal science education”.  According to post-doctoral students Lisa Hope Schwartz and Kathleen Hinko at the University of Colorado, Boulder, informal education environments often succeed where formal environments do not because constraints on learning and teaching are very different.  In fact, in talking to Schwartz and Hinko, I needed to clarify terms.  Where I would use “teaching and learning” to describe education they were appt to use “exploration and identify development”.  Both post-docs work with and study the impact of informal education programs on student perceptions of STEM education and careers.  Some research studies [dh1] show that at the end of formal education, high school, teenagers in Western Europe outscore their US peers on many standardized tests.  Yet, later in life, these same Europeans no longer retain an advantage over US citizens.  One possible explanation is that many North Americans remain engaged in learning STEM concepts and content through opportunities provided by informal education institutions such as museums, aquariums, and planetariums.


  • Marina La Grave, Latin American Center for Arts, Science, and Education
  • Kathleen Hinko, University of Colorado Boulder
  • Jennifer Jirous, Colorado Department of Education
  • Courtney Reed-Jenkins, National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity
  • Liza Hope Schwartz, University of Colorado, Boulder

By: Doug Haller, STEM Consultant

June 2013